Where do we start with Ned Grabavoy? This is tough. After some great years with Real Salt Lake, Mr. Grabavoy, a central midfielder that excels with the ball at his feet, is on his way to New York City FC through the MLS Expansion Draft.
It's never easy losing players through no distinct fault of our own. Real Salt Lake didn't cast Grabavoy aside, but at 31, protecting him in that draft was a difficult proposition. For Jason Kreis and New York City FC, passing him over was a difficult proposition. And so we came to expect Grabavoy was gone, but it didn't make it much easier to grapple with.
Ned Grabavoy joined Real Salt Lake in 2009 through the MLS Waiver Draft. San Jose was done with the midfielder, but he had plenty to offer. Only 26, Grabavoy had plenty of years left in him, and he was one of those players-with-unrealized-potential we like to look toward. He'd previously been with LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew before being picked up and dropped by San Jose, and with the former, he won his first MLS Cup, scoring a goal along the way, and won a US Open Cup that same year. For him to be cast about with such abandon doesn't reflect the player he became.
His time at Real Salt Lake started with him as a substitute, and he made 12 appearances off the bench in our trophy-winning 2009 campaign. In 2010, he moved into a more starting role, but it wasn't until 2013 that he played 30 or more matches in a season. His career had been injury-spotted before, but fitness became a higher priority, and it was reflected in his playing time and in his playing ability. 2013 was probably the best year Grabavoy had at Real Salt Lake, when he scored five goals and had five assists. He became an inextricable part of the midfield that year, and that continued. His numbers decreased slightly from his career year, but his importance hadn't dropped.
Grabavoy went from being that reliable possession option that could play at defensive midfield to a player you couldn't envisage wanting to play outside of his preferred spot - not because he wasn't good enough elsewhere, but because he was too important to shift about. But shift about he sometimes did, and it was most visible when he would move to left back after a red card or injury late in games. He wasn't bad there, but it gutted his impact on the team.
That impact? Being one of a few players who, when they had the ball at their feet, wouldn't lose it. Javier Morales at his best was similar. Sebastian Velasquez fits the bill, but in a more dribbly sort of way. Other players simply preferred not to keep the ball at their feet, and that worked fine for them - Kyle Beckerman is the chief example. But Grabavoy, when the pressure kicked in, wouldn't try to dribble through players. Instead, he simply kept possession with good ball control, then shunted the ball to a free player, with his retention having created some open space or room for a player to make a smart run.
Those will be the moments that Grabavoy is missed most. His late runs into the box for a goalscoring opportunity were great, but they weren't the moments that made Ned Grabavoy a special player for Real Salt Lake. It was about his movement, his understanding, and his coordination with the players around him.
With Ned Grabavoy gone, we'll be looking for players to fill the void. At this point, it's tough to say what happens, and maybe Grabavoy's absence prompts some tactical re-think. But before we jump headlong into the search, let's just take a moment and remember the importance of this midfielder who was an MLS castaway before we picked him up. Our revival of his career is what defined much of our personnel, and it's what separates us from other clubs across the world. Rather than tending to cast off players (although it happens everywhere, inevitably), we've taken the cast-off, and we've been every bit the victor for it.
If nothing else, let's remember Ned Grabavoy for his perfectly taken penalty against Chicago Fire in 2009 that sent Real Salt Lake to MLS Cup and handed them their first (and certainly only for the duration of forever) Eastern Conference championship. Let's remember his penalty in that MLS Cup final against LA Galaxy that sent Josh Saunders the wrong way. Let's remember him as a player with ice in his veins.
Editor's note: This is part of a series of player profiles recapping the 2014 season and previewing the 2015 season. Player ratings were compiled via a vote by RSL Soapbox writers. Statistics are via mlssoccer.com.