By JOSE M. ROMERO
Real Salt Lake is set for a sudden start to its 2011 season with Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg against the Columbus Crew (8 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel).
Its preseason training abbreviated by its CCL obligations, Real Salt Lake's need for its players to start training camp in shape and with a sense of familiarity was that much more important. The state of fitness and form will be put on display in Tuesday's key match, but the familiarity from recent years remains.
Real Salt Lake made it a point to hang on to all but one of its core of key players, Robbie Findley, while adding a proven veteran in Arturo Alvarez to an already talented and deep roster. The rest of the team looks a lot like that team that won the MLS Cup in 2009 and made the playoffs in 2010.
The same cannot be said for Columbus, the 2008 MLS Cup champion and perennial Eastern Conference power, which had a mass exodus of lineup stalwarts such as Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll, Steven Lenhart and Gino Padula in a more rocky offseason. When it comes to continuity heading into Tuesday's match, the edge goes to Real Salt Lake.
"That has been huge from the end of 2007 on," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "It was a very well-thought out plan to establish a core at that time. We had four or five players that we considered core players from 2007 and 2008 and we wanted to build around that core. I feel like every year we've been adding one, two, three players to now we've got a core group of players that's bigger than 11."
Kreis said "there's no doubt" that RSL sought to keep that group together and that it's "no easy task either, under a salary cap."
The many names are familiar ones in MLS circles — Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson and Andy Williams anchoring the midfield; Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave the veterans at center back; steady Nick Rimando in goal; and the re-signed Alvaro Saborio — who led the team in goals with 18 in all competitions last season and earned Designated Player contract status — leading a fairly young and talented group of forwards. And that's just the beginning.
Williams, 33, said RSL sought to emulate what the Houston Dynamo did in the mid-2000s when they were playing for MLS Cups with a strong core of players.
"We've played with each other the past two years and we know everybody''s tendencies, so we're not having to learn anything new right now," Willliams said.
Real Salt Lake is a bonafide MLS Cup, CCL and U.S. Open Cup title contender this year after a surprising exit from the 2010 MLS playoffs at the hands of FC Dallas.
"We still have that salty taste in our mouth from losing," Williams said.
Borchers said there's a solid group dynamic within the team and players like playing with each other.
"Fortunately for us, management has recognized that and I think they want to keep the group together," Borchers said. "We definitely have high expectations for ourselves."
Those expectations are raised after Real Salt Lake finished the 2010 regular season with the second-highest point total in MLS, just three points behind the L.A. Galaxy.
But is there a price to pay for so much talent and depth, in terms of players who might openly express discontent over a lack of playing time?
"Everybody wants to play, everybody wants to start," Borchers said. "That's what the business is all about. When you have guys at every position who are fighting for every position on the field, I think that just makes the team better."
Next month, RSL kicks off the MLS regular season, but it has high hopes it can make history in CONCACAF Champions League play, starting with a result in Columbus.
"We definitely want to be the first MLS club to make it to the tournament (championship)," Williams said. "It's a big task that we have in front of us, but I think we have the talent on this squad to pull it out."