The rough draft of this column was written about a week ago and was incredibly pessimistic. It was a 1,000+ word behemoth that rambled from topic to topic, referencing Greek mythology, Julius Caesar, and a random Netflix movie with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. So yeah, it got pretty dark. Luckily for all of you, I have pulled myself from the abyss, reorganized my life, and reflected on the things I’ve seen from Real Salt Lake this season.
The short answer to the question posed is yes, it is time for a rebuild. The team has stagnated over the past several seasons, our underlying numbers are bad, and our talent pipeline needs to be tweaked. The form of the rebuild however doesn’t need to be a “burn the forest to the ground and grow it anew” rebuild (my woodsmen friends tell me this happens sometimes), but more along the lines of a three day juice cleanse.
Cleanse day 1: Trade Joao Plata
Joao Plata is an incredibly talented player, who at times could have a case for top 10 attacker in the league. He’s a multifaceted winger who can both finish and create. His expected goals plus assists per 96 minutes number is .84, which for reference is better than Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti, and Maxi Moralez. In just 11 starts this season he’s put together a 6 goal 4 assist campaign and is tied with Damir Kreilach for most goals on the team.
There is also a reason the Ecuadorian has 11 starts. A good deal of it is injury related, but even when healthy Mike Petke has at times opted to keep Plata out of the lineup. While Plata may be outperforming Valeri, Piatti, and Moralez in advanced metrics, part of this is skewed in that he has played less than half of the minutes the others have. Plata also has a history of disciplinary issues, both under Petke and while away with the Ecuadorian National Team. Scoring goals at a prolific rate doesn’t help as much if you can’t consistently make it onto the pitch.
If RSL were to trade Plata away they’d be losing an extremely valuable asset, but that is part of why it makes sense to deal him. At 26 years old Plata isn’t going to get much better. He is at peak value and with his stellar performance in limited minutes so far (which will likely regress to the mean at some point) should be able to bring a decent asset haul which could help Real strengthen the squad in other areas. Two years of essentially this squad has shown that it tops out as a fringe playoff team. With allocation money from a Plata deal, maybe we could build something a little better.
Cleanse day 2: Let Waibel walk
It is extremely difficult to evaluate coaches in professional sports and even more difficult to evaluate members of the front office. Not every signing will be a success and there are a million variables that can come into play whenever a new player is introduced to the squad. The hope however is that if the process in place is good, the hits will eventually outweigh the misses and the overall trend will be upward. This hasn’t really been the case since Waibel took over.
Since Waibel was hired ahead of the 2015, the team has finished with point totals of 41, 46, and 45 points. They have missed the playoffs in two out of three seasons. In a league where roster turnover is high and rapid change is possible, Real Salt Lake has been consistently mediocre.
The underlying numbers this season paint an even bleaker picture. While RSL’s goal differential is an uninspiring -7 our expected goal differential is worse at a -10.2, good for third worst in the league. The rest of the numbers follow suit. While Real have managed to grab some good results this season (almost entirely at home) the team has also been lucky to perform better than expected in front of goal while opponents have failed to convert their chances.
One aspect of the job that Waibel seems to have nailed is in providing a pathway from the academy to the first team. Under his tenure multiple academy graduates have made significant contributions on the field, and the organization did well to keep an incredibly talented academy group together. But what about the next generation?
Sebastian Soto scored 42 goals in 25 academy games last season and has reportedly been trialing in Germany rather than getting matches with the Monarchs. Richie Ledezma, one of the brightest young attackers in the USYNT setup, had a trial with PSV in the Netherlands early last month. Taylor Booth, potentially the most talented player to move through the youth academy, has already committed to playing for Bayern Munich.
While it is incredible to see the academy churning out talent at a rapid rate, the inability to translate that talent into first team success, a la the New York Red Bulls or FC Dallas, is one of the greatest failures of the current regime. Ideally the next candidate would have a strong commitment to youth and a clearer picture of what the path from academy to USL to MLS should look like.
Cleanse day 3: Fix the simple things
The win over Chicago this past weekend, as well as some results in other matches put Real Salt Lake in a great position to make the playoffs. While it seems like Petke has found a preferred starting lineup, a few tweaks might put RSL in an even more advantageous position going forward.
Despite his man of the match performance, I’m not 100% sold on Damir Kreilach. He completes passes at a mostly average rate, and the balls he plays forward aren’t consistently dangerous. He also doesn’t offer much defensive help to an aging Kyle Beckerman. Sunny has struggled with consistency, but also offers a different look in the midfield. Occasionally pairing him with either Kreilach or Beckerman would provide more cover for a defense that hasn’t really found its footing without Tony Beltran.
Speaking of that defense, Danny Acosta has once more done something to put himself in Petke’s doghouse. If Acosta can stop playing illegal futsal games and Petke can find it in his heart to forgive him, the backline will be better off for it.
That concludes the RSL Rebuild Juice Cleanse (patent pending). In three easy and painless steps the Real Salt Lake you know and love will be back to 50+ point seasons, MLS Cup Finals, and maybe even the Concacaf Champion’s League. Because if there is one thing I know in this life, it’s that juice cleanses are backed by science and always work.