Since holding steady to the diamond 4-4-2 formation in 2007, Real Salt Lake looks poised to tinker with formations this season and thus opening more doors for potential positional battles across the starting XI.
It is undeniable that Real Salt Lake has been among the best defensive teams in Major League Soccer for the latter half of the last decade. With a stalwart backline, the Claret-and-Cobalt held opponents to 39 goals last year - only behind L.A. Galaxy and D.C. United with 37 goals against during the regular season.
With the departure of mainstays Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert through different mechanisms at the end of the 2014 campaign, defensive starting roles look poised to be tightly contested. With young players and veteran players battling for senior squad minutes, we will discuss potential key positional battles that will be key to RSL's success in 2015.
This one is a no-brainer. Obviously, Nick Rimando has this position locked down. The real battle in this position will come from the number two and three depth spots on the roster.
With Jeff Attinella having a standout year last year, Lalo Fernadez did not even take the pitch for the Claret-and-Cobalt. This year, however, the creation of RSL's USL Pro side the Real Monarchs could change that. Depending on how the rules governing player movement turn out, Fernadez could give Attinella a run for his money by getting match experience in the lower division.
With Rimando apparently taking a larger leadership role for the U.S. Men's National Team and with the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer, more time between the sticks could open up for the second- or third-string goalkeepers on the senior roster.
At left back, the newly acquired Demar Phillips almost certain has this position filled in the starting XI. However, we have yet to see him play for the Claret-and-Cobalt, and Abdoulie Mansally has proven to be a reliable back-up for Chris Wingert over the past couple seasons. Both Phillips and Mansally also have international experience which could make this positional battle extremely interesting. Whether Phillips takes the reins of left-back or Mansally is able to out-run his competition, the positional battle for left back is going to push inter-squad competitors to do their best week in and week out.
Central defender has arguably been one of the strongest positions on the squad in recent history - from the indomitable partnership of Borchers and Jamison Olave, to the work-horse attitude of Chris Schuler. Unlike past years, however, starting roles within the central defense may be a bit more liquid with the departure of Borchers and Carlos Salcedo over the offseason.
Based strictly on the preseason roster, the center-back position remains one of the deepest on the squad. With Schuler appearing as the heir apparent to the backline marshal, the acquisition of Olave will provide competition both for the top spots as well as farther down the line. With veteran experience, Olave can provide guidance to his younger compatriots, but at 33 years old, he will not provide the constant minutes the younger members of the squad can. This leaves room for Aaron Maund and RSL's newest Homegrown signing Phanuel "Phanny" Kavita to compete for first-team minutes when RSL in on turf, barring an unmentionable injury.
To throw another potential competitor into the mix, Craig Waibel has alluded to the media countless times about another defensive signing in the next couple of weeks. Mentioning CONCACAF Champion's League experience, it is assumed that Waibel is alluding to 22-year-old Elías Vásquez. The signing of Vásquez would allow the Claret-and-Cobalt to field even a deeper squad. Other than that it is unknown how Vásquez would fit into the squad. Would he be a competitor with Olave and Schuler for a position in the starting XI, or would he compete with Maund and Phanny for reserve matches? Until he is signed and joins the RSL preseason, we will leave that up to speculation.
Here is where it gets a little tricky. We know that right back is Tony Beltran's to lose, but the depth in this position is up for debate. RSL has two potential players on the depth chart for right back: Jordan Allen and Boyd Okwuonu.
Despite entering his second year with RSL, Allen's potential position is up in the air. Waibel told the media that Allen can "play along the backline . . . but also further up the field." While it has been reported that Allen is technically a right back for RSL, he might also be looked at as a right winger or even a midfielder.
Okwuonu, on the other hand, joins the Claret-and-Cobalt with a very definite role to fill. "I played center back at UNC, but for the [US] U-17s and U-20s qualifiers I played right back the whole time. I am comfortable with both," Okwuonu told the press. He also reported to have been signed as a right back. The versatile youngster will definitely provide depth along the backline.
With that in mind, the second-string right back position could be a potential point of competition within the squad. Both Okwuonu and Allen are technically gifted players that could possibly be competing for first-team minutes with Real Salt Lake playing matches in the MLS regular season, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League simultaneously.