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Talking Tactics: An analytic preview of Real Salt Lake heading into 2016

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At this time last year, Real Salt Lake appeared to be a playoff team holding the sixth and final place in the West, but a playoff team none the less. After the sweeping reforms of last year, though, RSL did worse than I predicted in 2015. Last year’s campaign was a disappointment after being eliminated from the playoffs even before they began – missing out on an eighth consecutive post-season appearance.

Club owner Dell Loy Hansen has mentioned on countless occasions his high hopes for the 2016 season. The biggest hole in the squad still appears to be the lack of a starting quality center-back, and in my opinion, two such players. Like I said before, and I will say again, Jamison Olave is well past his prime. General Manager Craig Waibel has mentioned the hope of obtaining a starting quality center back, but no such player has materialized as of yet. However, the club has made some interesting moves nonetheless in the off-season that should provide more depth than many other squads in the league. If everything comes together for the Claret-and-Cobalt, the club should once again qualify for the post-season and rekindle their dominate legacy in an increasingly competitive Western Conference.

Goalkeeping

Portland Timbers v Real Salt Lake Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Not much has changed here: RSL remains the best in the league when it comes to the goalkeeping corps. Leading the league in shutouts, Nick Rimando proves time and time again why he is the Claret-and-Cobalt’s go to man in between the uprights. Despite being consistently cheated out of winning the league’s ultimate award for goalkeepers, Rimando consistently preforms better than any other netminder in MLS. While other players are either hot or cold, Nick remains steady in goal maintaining a 71.0 percent save percentage and recorded eight clean sheets last year. And while Rimando is only a single member of the squad, he will be essential and a game changer while the defense is in flux.

Jeff Attinella is the main backup starting 2016. Last year he suffered from a bit of a slump, that I will chalk up to scanty defending, but still managed to save over 62 percent of the shots against him and totaled an average of 3 saves per match – one more than even Rimando. The youngster Lalo Fernandez will be providing depth and starting for the Real Monarchs

As RSL’s goalkeeping stats remain strong, year in and year out, expect the Wall of the Wasatch to produce amazing performance and with the Copa America this summer the club can be secure with Attinella.

Full Backs

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Claret-and-Cobalt had strong full back play from one side in 2015, while the other side suffered from inconsistency. In 2016, the ever-strong ironman on the right Tony Beltran returns, but left back Abdoulie Mansally was traded to the Houston Dynamo after the (re)acquisition of Chris Wingert and starlet preseason performance of SuperDraft pick Max Lachowecki. Losing Mansally means RSL is losing a greater offensive threat from the full back position, but Demar Phillips and veteran Chris Wingert will provide stronger defensive work-rates.

Tony Beltran has been solid playing 60 matches in the past two seasons for RSL. His work-rate has been essential in feeding the attack with his overlapping runs in the new(ish) 4-3-3 formation producing 25 scoring opportunities last year. Furthermore, he connected 76 percent of his passes while still averaging seven defensive actions per game. With RSL still preferring to build the attack through the center, Beltran doesn’t get as many touches as players like Harrison Afful and other top full backs in the league, but he is match in and match out one of the most solid player on both sides of the pitch.

The only worry at this point is if Tony Beltran gets injured who will replace him? The right back position is lacking in depth even with Boyd Okwuonu – who might be sent on loan. Okwuono was and is a highly regarded talent when he was draft and in playing with the US U-23s but his performances haven’t forced him into the starting eleven.

Center Backs

The most burning question in the 2016 RSL squad. Despite the ownership and management stating that they would make a large investment in a starting quality center back after the departure of Chris Schuler, no such player has materialized.

Another problem is the once dominant Jamison Olave. His best days are seemingly long past as he was the weak-link in the 2015 central defense and now he is considered the star. Not only is this disturbing but it forecasts many defensive errors to come for the Claret-and-Cobalt in 2016.

So not only are RSL lacking starting quality center backs in Olave and Aaron Maund, but there is no depth either. After 2015, Elias Vasquez is gone but Phanuel Kavita and Justen Glad are still here. RSL did, however, mange to ink one of the elite national prospect in Danilo Acosta to a Homegrown contract. But even so, the center back corps remains sparse.

Ultimately, the Claret-and-Cobalt lost two starting quality center backs after the 2015 season and has yet to replace them leading many to imagine RSL’s backline as Swiss cheese rather than a solid core. This could prove to be a opportunity to excel if Glad is able to set up to the challenge, as he is growing into the cerebral center back RSL not only deserves but needs.

Holding Midfielders

MLS: Chivas USA at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Real’s holding midfield partnership of Kyle Beckerman and Luke Mulholland was a work in progress for most of last season. Playing with a three man inverted-V midfield, the central midfield partnership is important to the entire club formation. Both players have shown good ball control and accumulated the most touches per match of any other group of players. And with Beckerman playing a key defensive role, his partner is able to operate freely between the boxes. Mulholland played the No. 8 role well, so it would appear the position is his to lose.

The Claret-and-Cobalt added a strong player in Stephen "Sunny" Sunday this off-season. The Nigerian International has hopes of reigniting his international career with the Super Eagles in a similar fashion to Obafemi Martins. His move to RSL has the potential to make a strong midfield even stronger. Already in preseason and through the CONCACAF quarterfinals, the Beckerman and Sunny partnership has demonstrated merits that could easily translate to the regular season. There is also hope for John Stertzer and Adolfo Ovalle to provide more offensive flair, however, becoming a steady midfielder seems like a stretch in any scenario.

Attacking Midfielder

MLS: LA Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

After the loss of the Luises – Luis Gil and Luis Silva – RSL appeared to have an all but depleted attacking midfield corps. Although Javier Morales found success last year, some might argue his best year with RSL, he is not getting any younger. In 2015, the maestro was the star of the team. Managing eight goals and nine assists was no small feat. Still, RSL has to look to the future of the No. 10 if they hope to remain competitive.

Enter Jordan Allen. The Swiss Army Knife of the team appears to finally have a single role with the club. After bouncing around from position to position, the coaching staff has pegged the young Homegrown star as Morales’ heir apparent. But even so, Allen has a long way to come. In 2015, he only managed to create 0.3 scoring chances per match, well below Javier’s 3.2. He was also inferior in passing – but let’s be serious, who is not when compared to the maestro? Even with all of Allen’s talents, if he does not meet expectations in this role, he could be replace by a higher caliber player (at least in this role) by the end of the season.

Strikers

As has been the story the last couple of years, it appears Real has a number of forwards to choose from. Collectively they have been able to surpass the 20 goal mark but Waibel is hoping for that kind of goal production from Yura Movsisyan who too was (re)acquired this offseason. The key contributors up top will be the club’s three DPs in Movsisyan, Joao Plata and Juan "El Burrito" Martinez.

The biggest off-season story was easily the signing of Movsisyan who returns to the club after a European stint. This is not, however, the same Movsisyan but a more seasoned, clinical attacker. He scored 60 goals in 142 matches since leaving the Claret-and-Cobalt. He is a classic No. 9 able to pick apart defensive lines and produce hold-up play. If Movsisyan is going to be successful, RSL just needs to feed the striker the ball in dangerous areas.

The aforementioned role of producer will fall to the wingers. With either Plata or Martinez able to adopt the trequartista role, RSL should be able to create more than 274, or third worst in the league in 2015. The play of the wingers will be key to RSL’s success and the first tier players appear to be up to the challenge.

The lack of finishing for the reserves strikers has been concerning to many, but it is important to realize they are still young. Both Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garica are good players, maybe not great, but good enough to be retained by the club. Sandoval for instance produced better play from RSL when he was on the field than when he was absent in 2015. That statistic mirrors the talent of Garcia whose set piece run almost won Goal of the Year honors last year. Both these players still have the touch and intelligence to score goals and create chances but more as an impact player rather than a starter.

With three key forwards leading the charge and a number of potential alternatives – Emery Welshman included – RSL should expect to find the back of the net considerably more than 2015. The attacking corps is stronger both on paper and in reality when compared to the start of last season and that is something for RSL Fans to be excited about.

Analysis

Real Salt Lake is far from a perfect team but they have improved immensely. Having a better understanding of the 4-3-3 formation and with the addition of key squad members, the club appears to be back in contention for the MLS postseason. In the Western Conference they lack some of the defensive prowess that other squads have, but the transfer window is not closed yet. The addition of just one starting quality center back could easily put this club into the top three sides in the conference. With a mostly steady roster and the addition of Jordan Morris, the Seattle Sounders appear to be the clear favorites in the West, but RSL could battle their way up to third, maybe even second place at the end of the campaign. My qualitative and quantitative model shows an improved offense but a weaker defense when compared to 2015.

Jeff Cassar’s style of play has at times made RSL fans cringe, but with the squad at hand he could find a solution. With an incremental improvement in player management, Cassar has the potential recipe for success. Waibel has produced enough squad depth to compete for MLS Cup as well as the US Open Cup. Until the defensive aspect of the squad is fixed, RSL do not seem favored to make a deep push into the playoffs, but a single player could turn the tide.

The Claret-and-Cobalt have finally managed to snag what I felt as the missing component in 2015 of an elite central striker in Movsisyan. The use of Plata and Burrito could also provide many match changing moments. Not to be overlooked, however, is the strong and veteran spine. Players like Beckerman, Rimando, and Morales are essential pieces to the RSL puzzle and will remain so in 2016. As stated before, the only real Achilles’ hell of the squad is in defense but signing an influential central defender could solidify the backline. In all, the prospects of RSL look to be better than 2015 as they have my prediction of rekindling their postseason appearance streak this year.

Watch RSL kickoff the 2016 season in Orlando on Sunday, March 6th at 12 p.m. Mountain on KMYU or MLS LIVE.