Major League Soccer is a brutal 34-game grind. The league stretches thousands of miles, from Los Angeles to Montreal, from Orlando to Vancouver. Not only are the distances great, but the climate is diverse. A stamina-draining 90 minutes in the Houston humidity while facing the Dynamo could be followed days later with a battle for oxygen in mile high Denver against the Rapids.
To win under these conditions a team needs key veterans. Soldiers who have faced this monster before and know how to keep fighting through different weather patterns, cross country flights, and road stands. Lucky for Real Salt Lake, they have a few.
Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Nick Rimando know how to navigate the brutal schedule in the states. Rimando and Beckerman are MLS lifers, both starting with the Miami Fusion before taking separate paths to Real Salt Lake. Morales joined in 2007 from UD Vecindario in the Spanish second division. They have all been fixtures in the starting 11 since their arrivals. Between the three of them they have played in 975 MLS games and should easily break 1,000 over the course of 2016. How many games over 1,000 they play will likely determine RSL’s fate this season.
One of the big stories of the MLS offseason was the rebuild in Los Angeles, and the Galaxy have repeatedly been criticized by fans and foes alike for placing their trust (and money) in aging Euro stars Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, and Jelle Van Damme who are ages 35, 32, and 31 respectively. Real Salt Lake’s big three are even older. Rimando and Morales are each 36, while Beckerman checks in at a (comparatively) youthful 33.
In an MLS era where the top teams like FC Dallas, New York Red Bull, and Vancouver Whitecaps are fielding teams loaded with youth, Real Salt Lake is an outlier, and it isn’t only there three stars. The Claret and Cobalt’s starting lineup against Tigres in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League had an average age of 30.4, with Joao Plata being the only starter under the age of 25.
There are a few ways to look at this.
One way is to look at the experience they bring to the table. That 975 games between the big three is the equivalent of 28.7 MLS seasons. These are guys who know how to deal with the grind. They were part of seven straight postseason appearances and two trips to the MLS Cup final, winning it all in 2009. In addition, Nick Rimando had previously picked up an MLS Championship while playing for DC United.
The knowledge that comes from that kind of experience is crucial to any team’s success. These are guys who have been getting it done at a high level, and know what it takes to reach the top. All have a legitimate claim to top five at their positions, Rimando has a strong case for best in the league (it’s a crime that he hasn’t won goalkeeper of the year).
However, along with that experience comes a downside. Can all three stay healthy enough for a push at the playoffs?
Javier Morales suffered a gruesome broken ankle in 2011 that many thought might slow him down. Instead he’s played 20+ games a season, tallying 28 goals and 46 assists since then. Last year he finished with 8 goals (including this beauty) and 12 assists, which stands as one of his most productive seasons in Utah, but picked up some nagging injuries down the stretch that ended Real’s playoff hopes.
Beckerman has remained largely injury free, playing 25+ games in each of the past five seasons. He has slowed down though, last season was his lowest output statistically since 2007, his first year at the club. The 4-3-3 demands a little more range out of him, which can’t be easy on his aging legs. The addition of Sunny Obayan should help, but it will be tough for Beckerman to keep his streak of 25+ games a season alive.
Although his games per season has slowly decreased in recent years, Nick Rimando’s agility in front of goal has seemingly increased. His skills were on full display last season, recording saves like this kick save for Goal of the Week honors. He has also compiled this bananas-crazy statistic.
That’s right, less than half of the penalty kicks taken against him actually go in. Rimando will go down as one of the best keepers to ever play in the MLS and, based mostly on position, seems like the least likely of these three to regress in 2016.
This trio has been the collective face of the franchise for a while now, but the chief goal of this season should be to quickly integrate the new additions. These three will inevitably fall off at some point, and the manner in which Real Salt Lake handles it will say a lot about the current state of the club.
How RSL manages minutes and playing time for their aging veterans, will be a key storyline all season long. If they can make it through the taxing MLS schedule injury free, Real should return to the playoffs at season’s end. If not? Well time makes fools of us all.