In many ways, Real Salt Lake’s 2022 campaign was a long one. The season started in February; it ended in October. Eight months is not the longest an MLS season can last, but that doesn’t obviate that we might all rightly feel a little exhausted by the campaign.
That’s not to say that it was a bad campaign because of the exhausting nature of it, although I think there’s an argument there. Last place among playoff teams isn’t incredible, small market or not, and I don’t think there should an issue with that being a legitimately held view. It’s better than missing the playoffs, but it feels only marginally better.
At any rate, improvement is clearly needed, and with any luck, there will be understanding of that fact around the front office. I don’t think RSL punched above their weight, and I don’t think we can attribute all of any of that to either the coach or the roster. These things are all tied together, and we don’t have the luxury of separating them.
That said, here are three areas where I think the club should look to improve. Unless a team intentionally sets out to rebuild, incremental improvement is the goal, and I’ve tried to stick to that in this column. Don’t expect “fire everyone” or “rebuild the entire back line,” except, well, maybe expect the latter a little bit. I don’t know. Let’s just have at this.
Rebuild RSL’s defensive depth — and give the depth minutes
By the end of the season, indications were clear: Erik Holt was out of favor, as was Johan Kappelhof. It’s always difficult for players who don’t play regularly to step into the fray, but neither player succeeded when thrust into that position, and I think it’s time we start rebuilding that. I don’t think any of us want a situation where Nick Besler is playing at center back regularly outside of an injury crisis, but that’s exactly where we ended 2022. It’s not a recipe for success.
One of the most important things we can do here is to treat Jaziel Orozco as a first-team player throughout the season. We can accept mistakes if it’s paired alongside development, because there’s a potential positive outcome at the end. Orozco showed signs of being a great center back, and he will need first-team minutes to develop to his full capacity.
My bigger takeaway, though: If we’re not going to give center backs even rotational minutes, and we expect them to come into matches during crucial moments, we cannot be surprised when they make mistakes.
Refine the midfield
RSL’s midfield has seen plenty of ups and downs in 2022. I’m just going to go through a bulleted list here of some of my ideas.
- Pablo Ruiz was on the end of criticism toward the end of the season — he was beaten defensively on a few key moments. I’d hold that’s because we’re using him in a way that emphasizes his weaknesses. RSL needs to put Ruiz into more advantageous positions, because I do think he can be a game-changing player.
- Braian Ojeda emerged on the scene, on loan from Nottingham Forest, and was a positive influence in the midfield. We also learned that he has a very health $4 million buy option, which would render him likely RSL’s most expensive player. While there might be some opportunity for Nottingham Forest to come down on the price, they’re in a precarious position in the English Premier League, sitting at the bottom of the league table. Should they be relegated, would that change RSL’s negotiating position?
- Diego Luna signed and immediately looked bright and a creative force, but his minutes were limited, and there was clearly no plan to give Luna significant minutes. Pablo Mastroeni has gone so far as to say that he sees Luna as a starting player in MLS in “a year or two.” Luna’s stated goal has been to play in Europe sooner rather than later — and while I’d love to see him change his mind and become a major figure at RSL, not playing him won’t help the cause.
Avoid major injuries
Alright, so this isn’t really something anyone has real control over, but it would be great to see RSL avoid major injuries in 2023. That might mean rotating Bobby Wood more frequently (if he’s around, you know), ensuring Damir Kreilach isn’t pushed to his limit, and finding methods of play that aren’t physically taxing. This is all easier said than done.