By VINCE MADURI
Real Salt Lake may have come within a singular goal of being able to keep their team together for one more run at another title.
In CONCACAF Champions League group play, RSL needed one goal against Herediano at home to send the club through to the knockout stages, securing extra allocation money to fit the team under the cap in 2013. Salt Lake couldn’t find the goal they needed, and had to breakup a roster the club managed to largely keep together for a string of several years.
Gone are defensive mainstay Jamison Olave and streaky forward Fabian Espindola, both traded to New York. Gone is high-energy midfielder Will Johnson, who was traded to Portland. Real Salt Lake had to sacrifice several players who were paramount to the consistent success the club has enjoyed since 2008.
Now RSL move forward with a slimmer, younger roster highlighted by players that have worked their way up the ranks of the team and will now find themselves in the starting lineup.
Here is a closer look at Real Salt Lake ahead of the 2013 MLS season:
REAL SALT LAKE SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 17-11-6, 57 points (Second in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Olmes García, F Robbie Findley, M John Stertzer, F Joao Plata, F Devon Sandoval, GK Josh Saunders, M Aaron Maund, M Lovel Palmer, M Cole Grossman, M Khari Stephenson
KEY LOSSES: D Jámison Olave, F Fabián Espíndola, M Will Johnson, F Justin Braun, M Jonny Steele, F Paulo Jr., F Emiliano Bonfigli, GK Kyle Reynish, M Nico Muñiz
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: F Olmes Garcia – The Colombian is only 20 years old and may not start the year as the striker alongside Saborio. But don’t be surprised if Garcia is awarded the position at some point this year. The forward does not have an outstanding scoring record yet as his young age, but RSL staff could not ignore Garcia’s talent and expect the Colombian to be a big factor on this team.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: F Alvaro Saborio – Saborio’s scoring partner is gone in Fabian Espindola, leaving the Costa Rican the large amount of the scoring burden. Robbie Findley will most likely start the year alongside Saborio, but Findley hasn’t had a good scoring season since he left Salt Lake in 2010. Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia have yet to become proven scorers at an elite level, although both have the talent to do so. Therefore, Saborio needs to have a big season for RSL to contend.
Now that the exodus is complete, Real Salt Lake’s roster will be made up of several young players including increased roles for midfielder Luis Gil and defender Chris Schuler.
Gil was initially looked at as the eventual replacement for playmaker Javier Morales, and he still might be, but immediately Gil’s role will take on one similar to Will Johnson the last few seasons. The US U-20 star will have a high energy and work rate on the right side of midfield.
Morales will still play the primary midfield attacking option at 33-years-old while captain Kyle Beckerman serves as the link behind the Argentine.
One player who has impressed in pre-season is rookie John Stertzer. As much depth as there is in the midfield, with the likes of Sebastian Velasquez, Ned Grabavoy and Enzo Martinez, Stertzer just might play himself into rookie minutes.
Alvaro Saborio will need to have a big year for RSL to contend because the Costa Rican is going to be paired with one of a few different strikers that have either never been proven scorers at an elite level in Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata, or that has not had a good run of form in a few years in Robbie Findley. Saborio is about to turn 31 years old and should still have enough in the tank to compete at this level for a few more years.
Chris Schuler will start in central defense with Nat Borchers, while familiar faces Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert will occupy the full back positions.