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Season Preview: RSL’s youth movement a hallmark of the Mike Petke era

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been paying attention to Real Salt Lake over the offseason, you’ll see a team that’s underwent a fair deal of motion, brought in a few international players, and have more or less kept the same core that helped turn around the 2017 season, even if the team didn’t make the playoffs.

Likewise, if you’ve been paying attention to media coverage around RSL, you’ll likely have seen predictions that place us firmly in the bottom half of the Western Conference. You’ll see betting odds that place us as an incredible long-shot to make it to MLS Cup in 2018.

None of that public doubt means anything. Let’s look at why.

New additions

RSL has brought in a slew of new players: Alfredo Ortuño, forward; Damir Kreilach, midfielder; Adam Henley, right back. These are players that had either found themselves in tricky contract situations, out of favor at their club, or simply deemed excess to requirements.

Ortuño, for one, found himself on the receiving end of some unsavory agent dealing, and as a result, couldn’t sign for a club in La Liga — and so he opened up as an option for Real Salt Lake. He scored 17 goals in La Liga 2 last year and was widely expected to be playing in La Liga in 2018.

Kreilach was a long-serving veteran at Union Berlin, but he found himself displaced by a coaching change. That gave RSL a chance to bring him in on what is more or less a free transfer.

Henley was an exciting player at Blackburn, and he was a Premier League debutant at 17. Injuries unraveled some of the excellent career progress he’d made to that point, and he’s now looking to get back on track in MLS.

They’re not the only ones, of course. Shawn Barry, who spent seven years in European second-division clubs, and Alex Horwath, who spent four years overseas bolster the squad from a veteran perspective. On the other side, Aaron Herrera, Corey Baird, Ricky Lopez-Espin and Pablo Ruiz join as young players with potential.

New attitudes

To say that RSL spent much of last year trying to figure out its own essential characteristics is a bit of an understatement. After firing coach Jeff Cassar after only a few games in the season, RSL hired Mike Petke, and the transition was rocky. Yura Movsisyan became a bench player — or worse — and never really came out of that. Joao Plata sparred rather publicly with Cassar toward the end of his tenure at the club, and that continued for a short time with Petke before he turned things around for the club.

It’s certainly not all solved, but it does feel like we’ve reached some sort of resolution — we understand that Yura Movsisyan will probably leave the club (when, nobody knows), and Joao Plata has fully bought into the system.

The youth movement

Perhaps the biggest selling point to anyone about the strength RSL can put on display this season is that we’re really trying to harness our youth in a way we’ve never tried before. The squad includes 15 players aged 24 and younger, and several of those players are expected to start on opening day.

That initial lineup could include Danilo Acosta (20), Justen Glad (20), Adam Henley (23), Albert Rusnak (23) and Jefferson Savarino (21), so it’s fair to say that the club is actually embracing it in more than just a cursory way. It’s the path forward for a club like RSL who will almost certainly not be attracting quite the same talents as, say, an LAFC. We may not sign Carlos Vela, but we can take Albert Rusnak from a club where he was struggling and make him a league-wide star.