If I'm allowed to make a bold prediction or two, I'd like to venture something here. In 2015, Real Salt Lake's season will be defined by the palyers between the two extremes of veterans and youth.
It doesn't seem so bold as one might think, but 2015 looks geared as a season where those players will have to make the biggest difference they've been asked to. As much as we talk about Real Salt Lake's depth and fire off "The Team is the Star" as our mantra, it was too often last year that the team was left wishing the starters were around.
Part of that was because we'd sacrificed new, hungry blood (not in the blood sacrifice way, in what I hope is an exceedingly obvious addendum) in exchange for stability. It worked out reasonably well, but sometimes, the team fell flat. It wasn't necessarily because there was too much stability, but it did sometimes seem as if the team was struck by some otherworldly malaise.
I'd argue that was down to a few things. First, Jeff Cassar, as a first-year coach, was still learning how to balance minutes for players. He did pretty well at this, but chances were either hard to come by or staring you in the face without much betwixt the two. When Cole Grossman played the majority of his minutes, it was with Kyle Beckerman out on international duty — is it any coincidence that Grossman looked better alongside Beckerman than without him? (I mean, obviously not, as Beckerman's the sort of player that makes teammates look even better than usual, but the point is more about learning from the captain than anything.)
Second, we had a number of players who just couldn't get consistent minutes, whether that was down to injury or a general lack of playing time. Players like John Stertzer, who really impressed then broke his leg in a tackle, are perhaps the exception. Instead, we're looking more at players like Luis Gil, who struggled with injury and never really got going as a result, or Devon Sandoval, who had a difficult time coming off an offseason surgery, or Rich Balchan, who impressed once or twice then fell apart after not finding minutes, or Aaron Maund, who couldn't find minutes behind Chris Schuler, Nat Borchers, and Carlos Salcedo. It's completely understandable, really, and Real Monarchs will be very helpful here.
Third, we had fewer players competing for backup spots. The motivational aspect of having rotating backups probably makes a difference — after all, if you're behind Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, or Javier Morales, the odds that you'll regularly break into the first team diminish. Instead, the positional battles shift back a row, and you're fighting for a backup spot. With fewer players around to push others in that way, you're left with less pressure all around. It's a hard problem to solve, and a harder one to prove is actually a problem. (Player psychology seems a little like it's not actually a real thing, I guess.)
Real Salt Lake's depth charts in the month before the season starts will be revealing, to say the least. It's a shame we don't get to see exactly what the coaching staff is thinking all the time. That would be the most exciting thing of all.
With Real Monarchs entering the fray, RSL's opportunities for substantial and meaningful depth will be heightened. When players take to injury like a duck takes to water, we'll have opportunities to look at other options we wouldn't have before.
And hey, at the very least, a little bit of new blood shakes things up. It disrupts the group and keeps everyone just a little more on their toes. Maybe as much change as we experienced this year isn't what we want to have happen every year, but if we can properly harness it to improve the team beyond just having the raw personnel pieces, we'll be all the better for it.