In the second installment of this series, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s midfield will be evaluated as it pertains to their perceived value as well as their actual salary cap hit.
The midfield got smaller since 2014 but the paradigm stayed the same. Possession oriented soccer was the name of the game for Real Salt Lake long before it switched to the 4-3-3, but the coaching staff hoped to emulate a sort of Porter-ball approach as used in Portland. Jeff Cassar’s biggest change to the organization’s system saw midfield positions shrink by one.
Almost inevitable as similar 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 formations have begun to dominate the MLS, the diamond midfield vanished over the offseason along with a fair number of midfielders. Both Ned Grabavoy and Sebastian Velasquez took their trade to New York and Cole Grossman departed for overseas. The quality of players lost in the midfield the past year – most notably Grabavoy – made certain that RSL would have to embrace at least a small alteration to their successful model. As such, the midfield at times look discombobulated and unsure out this new formation leaving some to wonder what would improve the new three-man midfield?
Number 6: The Defensive Midfielder
Depth chart: Beckerman, Stertzer, Pecka, Glad?, Ovalle
Conventionally, this is the clean-up guy. The player deepest sitting midfielder in front of the center-backs and does the dirty work. A player that almost always breaks up opposition attacks through tough tackling ways, superb positional awareness, and excellent reading of the game. And the Claret-and-Cobalt have this to the T in Captain Kyle Beckerman.
Here is Beckerman’s heatmap against FC Dallas:
Beyond a doubt, Beckerman is one of the greatest defensive midfielders that the U.S. has ever produced and easily the best in the league. So in other words, don’t expect him to be vacated from this spot anytime soon.
A revelation this year, John Stertzer really started coming into his own in this position after an injury riddled start with RSL – it also helped that Grossman, who was a strong second-tier player d-mid, left. Covering much of the same ground that Beckerman does, Stertzer is fulfilling this role expertly in Beckerman’s absence, just look at his heatmap against FC Dallas:
With Beckerman holding down the starting XI spot and Stertzer’s strong performances, the new signing Pecka has yet to really make an impact for the team. Making only four appearances, one of them a start, he was kind of a filler player for much of the season. While he did manage to make six appearance for the Real Monarchs, even there he kind of sunk into the background.
Pecka’s position with the club is even more expendable when compared to Justen Glad or Adolfo "Fito" Ovalle. The later two aforementioned players are homegrown players whose salary does not count against the club’s budget. Occupying a senior roster spot and costing $60,000 a season, Pecka is less of a long-term option and more a short-term one as either Glad or Ovalle could be Beckerman’s successor.
Number 8: The Box-to-Box Midfielder
Depth chart: Mulholland, Gil, Allen?, Saucedo?
A box-to-box midfielder, on the other hand is a more dynamic player. As opposed to the static positional player that a defensive midfielder is, the box-to-box midfielder – a.k.a., 008 – is given a license to roam anywhere between his 18-yard box and his opponents’. While a box-to-box midfielder can take the form of any wide variety of player types – attacking like Frank Lampard or more defensive like Will Trapp – RSL employs the more rounded, do-everything kind of box-to-box midfielder – Will Johnson-esque if you will.
At the start of the season, it appeared as if Luis Gil had secured this position. Starting the first third of the season consecutively, Gil looked dangerous at times but struggled to find his feet in this new position. Gil then went on to lose his starting position in what was not so much a skills issue as it was a coaching snafu – in my opinion, but I digress.
Luke Mulholland, however, found a home in this position as he was more fitted to the role. Shuttling the ball up and down the field, Mulholland hassled opponents, made runs into the oppositions’ box, and quite elegantly linked up play.
With an $82,500 cap hit, Mulholland is far more a budget player than Gil at $240,000. Still, Gil has international experience that Mulholland does not. In other words, they each bring something unique to the table that the other does not. But with Mulholland receiving more minutes on the pitch and with his contract up, it is conceivable that Gil might have played his final match for the Claret-and-Cobalt.
In any case, the box-to-box midfielder role has very slim pickings from here on out. While Jordan Allen, with his vast reservoir of talents, and fellow Homegrown player Sebastian Saucedo could seamlessly transition into this central midfield role, their talents are likely better put to use closer to the touchline – i.e., winger or full back in Allen’s case.
Number 10: The Attacking Midfielder
Depth chart: Morales, Silva, Gil, Allen?, Saucedo?
Real Salt Lake could easily be in a pickle this offseason with all three of its attacking midfield options out of contract. While either Allen or Saucedo could possibly fill this role, their youthful inexperience could hamper the RSL attack. Nothing against either one of them but the Claret-and-Cobalt’s system is contingent on a skilled attacking midfielder. While this ability comes in time for most young attackers, RSL does not have time to wait around.
Javier Morales has been the director of RSL’s symphonic attack for eight and a half years but the soon to be 36 year-old is not getting any younger. He has shown time and time again, however, that he still has the magic on the pitch. Morales was even the leading scorer for RSL in 2015. Being so much more than a playmaker, the loss of Morales would be hard to swallow.
On the other side of the coin, Luis Silva recently arrived from D.C. United in a midseason trade for Alvaro Saborio – both with the expectation that their contracts were expiring at the end of the year. The talented American attacker is still young at 26 and has not yet reached his full potential. While United extended the stay of Saborio, there has been no news from the RSL camp about a similar fate for Silva.
Silva has performed well since entering the fold. While he is no Javier Morales, Silva has demonstrated a lot of talent missing only three matches since his arrival. Whether he is an impact player off the bench or a starter, Silva has that something special. And at $131, 384, he is vastly cheaper than either Morales or Gil.
In spite of all of this, no word has been made about any of these three players’ future at the club. In any case, however, RSL will need to either resign or aggressively search for a first-team quality attacking midfielder to feed the striking trio.
Addressing RSL’s 2016 needs
Need #1: Well-rounded box-to-box midfielder
There are rumors that Will Johnson is on the way out in Portland. Would it be a good idea for RSL to pursue one of its former players? At $314,000 dollars, I suppose not, but if Gil and Jamison Olave are on the way out there might be enough dimes to scrap together to do the deal – don’t hold your breath.
Instead, RSL should search all of its scouting avenues for a well-rounded box-to-box midfielder. Whether he is from a different country or domestic team, a quality college draftee or a player excelling in the lower divisions of their organizations, it doesn’t matter. The trick will be securing a player of high quality for a reasonable price.
Need #2: First-team quality attacking midfielder
Need, need, need, need, need. Did I mention this is a huge NEED for RSL? This is the player that will pull the strings of the RSL attack. This is debatably the most important attacking role for the club. For example, when Javier Morales isn’t on the pitch RSL is 1-5-2 in league play. So, by either re-signing an out-of-contract player or acquiring a new quality attacker, RSL must have a great — not good — attacking midfielder for the 2016 season if they hope to have a positive goal differential.
Possible wants: Depth in attacking and box-to-box roles; Multidimensional midfielder
In addition to needing first-tier players in each of these roles, RSL would be wise to invest in depth for these positions. With injury concerns and tired legs throughout the long season, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s depth is always tested. Therefore, strong squad rotational players throughout the midfield would only strengthen RSL.
Another style of player that would benefit RSL would be a multidimensional midfielder. Like Darlington Nagbe, this kind of player would be able to be a threat whether playing centrally or out-wide — a kind of hybrid player if you will. The ability to be moved throughout the pitch would definitely aid a team in transition, like the Claret-and-Cobalt is currently.
I would not expect RSL to waste many resources trying to fulfill this scenario so look to the MLS Drafts — Supplemental, Waiver, etc. — or even possibly new league "free agents" to fill these roles.