It's not a secret. RSL's 2015 season left a few things to be desired. For a start, it's the first season in recent memory in which RSL has a) failed to reach the playoffs, b) failed to win 15 games in the season and c) failed to accumulate 50+ points on the season. That's enough to make anyone discouraged, especially after a long run of having a consistently dominant team in Major League Soccer (despite only having a single trophy to show for it).
However, it's easy to forget that the odds have been stacked against Real Salt Lake since Jason Kreis left. No, not just because Jason left, although that didn't help. Since Kreis's departure, RSL has lost senior players due to salary concerns, expansion draft, injuries, international callups, crazy social media fiascos, and the turnover hasn't just been in the player pool, we've lost coaches and General Manager Garth Lagerwey. It's been rough.
After we lost against FC Dallas last Saturday, I started compiling a list of things that we as fans (and hopefully the team as well) can take away from the 2015 season and either build on or learn from. It's a not insignificant list. Here it is, in no particular order:
1. Tony Beltran had a career year
Maybe it was the hair, but Tony's 2015 had to be the best season of his career. Critics may have complained that he shouldn't have had a spot on the MLS All-Star Team in July, but those critics weren't watching him very closely, nor could they have seen his consistent, solid performances to finish out the season. His expertise on both sides of the ball helped steady a wavering back line and every once in a while he'd show off a bit of flair that you didn't realize he had in him.
2. The 4-3-3 looked promising at times, but do we have the right players?
Maybe the initial idea behind the 4-3-3 was to better utilize Joao Plata -- an idea that ultimately didn't pan out to much as injuries plagued his 2015 season. And maybe we didn't have quite the right pieces in the right places in the midfield, especially at the beginning of the season. But there were times when the 4-3-3 looked really exciting and dynamic, and other times when opponents would rip us to shreds. It was (and is, still) an adjustment, but is the adjustment worth the payout? And do we have the right pieces to slot into the puzzle? There are some definite areas for improvements to be made this offseason and it will be interesting to see how things develop.
3. Kyle Beckerman solidifies his position as one of the best Defensive Midfielders in the league
Kyle isn't getting any younger. But you could have fooled me. Whether he was playing for the national team or shrugging off 3 full 90 minute games in a week like it was nothing, the man's stamina was just insane. And it's not just that he can run for days -- that's something we already knew about Kyle. He also showed how valuable he is not just as the base of the diamond in RSL's 4-4-2, but as the sweeper that the USMNT desperately needed to clean up sticky situations in international play as well.
4. Actual first-team minutes for young players
Remember back when Jason was coach and we'd pick up this exciting young player like Sebastian Velasquez -- or, better yet, Enzo Martinez -- and we'd be excited and anxious to see him play and it just never happened? Maybe they'd sit on the bench and watch the game for 90 minutes, maybe (if they were very, very lucky) they'd come in at the end for Jason's patented 60th Minute Sub, or maybe we'd only ever see them in reserve matches. That hasn't been the case this year and that's a good thing. Because let's face it, the young faces coming out of the Arizona academy and the SuperDraft are the future of the club. And the more first-team minutes they get, the more experience they will have under their belt and the more ready they will be when we hand them the keys to the castle.
We had a pretty good idea that this "burrito" guy was good. But I dare anyone to say that they knew he would adapt this quickly to MLS play and become so acclimated with Real Salt Lake as quickly as he did. What's that? Oh you knew, did you? You're lying. Juan Manuel Martinez became an instant fan favorite when he said that he preferred the atmosphere of a smaller city like Salt Lake to the big metropolises like New York or Los Angeles. His easy smile and fluent English endeared him quickly to supporters. But he filled an immediate need for the club with Joao unable (due to injuries) to take on the creative winger role that we so desperately needed -- and expected -- him to fill. His skill on the ball, his playmaking ability, and the interchange between him and Javier Morales was, at times, nothing short of brilliance. A brilliance made even brighter by the fact that he notched a goal and two assists in his first 2 starts for the team. He makes the players around him look better and his experience in this formation is exactly the thing that RSL needed. My 2016 prediction: You're going to see a lot of MARTINEZ jerseys in the stadium.
6. Veteran experience for young players
The older our squad gets, the more some of our most favorite familiar faces will start leaving. That's why it's important for the next generation of players to soak up as much experience and knowledge as they can from the veterans like Tony, Kyle, Nick, Jamison and Javi. Not only is age and retirement always a concern, but you never know when we wind up in a situation like we were last year losing Borchers to a trade and then Grabavoy and Wingert to the expansion draft. A huge amount of leadership and experience flew to the coasts last offseason and their absence was felt.
7. Real Monarchs
2015 marked the start of a new "minor league" in MLS with the partnership of Major League Soccer and the USL. Each MLS team was required to have either their own lower-division franchise or negotiate an affiliate agreement with one of the existing USL teams. The goal was to create a place where players out of the youth academies could get professional experience, and where some of the first-team players could get minutes while rehabilitating from injuries. I think the concept is great and I think it was something that's been sorely lacking from the youth development system RSL has had in years past. Before, we'd get a player like Donny Toia or Enzo Martinez from the academy and they'd sit on the bench, sit on the bench, sit on the bench, and maybe play in a few reserve matches. With the Monarchs, they can be playing actual, meaningful games against other professional teams in a league where everyone's goal is to ultimately make it to the first team. It's a place where someone like our #3 'keeper Lalo Fernandez can actually, you know, keep goal, and not just sit at home and play FIFA instead or hope for a short-term transfer with a USL or NASL team.
8. Devon Sandoval's development as a center forward
The best thing that happened to Devon this year was Alvaro Saborio going to DC United. Not just because they were competing for minutes -- though they were -- but because as long as you had Sabo on the pitch, you could never have Devon on at the same time. Playing a target forward like Saborio, you want your other forward (or forwards) to be speedy and able to get the ball behind the defenders and feed the ball to your target man. Maybe Devon doesn't score a lot of goals, but he makes the team more dangerous. He occupies space and defenders and holds up the ball to allow his teammates to catch up and find the open lanes. His job isn't necessarily to score all the goals, the way Sabo's was. Rather, the role Devon fills is to be a big guy that makes defenders nervous by getting in close and allowing other players to get a shot on target. Is he the #1 CF for 2016? Probably not. But given a few years to clean up his finishing and he could be the Wondolowski who poached his way to a Golden Boot.
9. Aaron Maund's transformation into a solid starting centerback
Holy crap are you kidding me? If you had told me last year that I would be singing the praises of Aaron Maund by the end of this season I would have said you were nuts. Even halfway into 2015, when Maund got the start, it was always with the subtle implication that it was just because we didn't have Schuler healthy. And so, with a bit of a cringe, we'd hear his name get called with the other starters. But eventually, that cringe went away, and -- completely out of nowhere -- Aaron Maund started looking like a really solid centerback, more so than Elias Vasquez, who seemed like the obvious Carlos Salcedo replacement. He hasn't been perfect -- some of his clearances still don't quite go where you'd prefer them to go -- but he's had consistently good performances, made game-saving tackles, and even managed to score a couple goals this season. His height and jumping ability is something to be seen -- he can launch himself above his opponents like he's playing Space Jam and it's come in handy more than once this year.
If this is actually DLH’s Facebook profile, this seems like a pretty big thing to say publicly. pic.twitter.com/vBG4Dx1t1B— Matt Montgomery (@TheCrossbarRSL) October 15, 2015
10. If you post the right things on social media, Dell Loy Hansen responds. Sometimes.
Who would've thought that all it would take would be a quick post about a stray tweet from Will Johnson pouring salt over the still-aching wound of Nat Borchers leaving for Portland (and then scoring against us) for Dell Loy to come out publicly about his falling-out with Garth Lagerwey -- something that was never discussed publicly before? Here's hoping in 2016 we at RSL Soapbox can push whatever the right buttons are to get Dell Loy engaged some more, because, if nothing else, hearing these sorts of things helps us understand the reasons behind many of the opaque decisions the front office makes. At the very least, it gives us something to talk about. Now can you friend us, Dell Loy? Please?