By TYLER GRAY
While many MLS teams retooled their rosters in the offseason, Real Salt Lake mostly retained the group that came within penalty kicks of winning the 2013 MLS Cup.
The changes happened along the sideline, where RSL lost one of the league’s best head coaches in Jason Kreis.
Real Salt Lake fans held their collective breath when extra time ended and the penalty shootout began in the frigid Kansas City air that defined last year’s final. They didn’t exhale until the news broke that head coach Kreis was on his way to New York.
Inches away from a league title and fresh off the loss of Kreis, RSL was left to pick up the pieces of a season that was defined by almosts.
True to form for one of the most stable franchises in the league, owner Dell Loy Hansen kept things in-house and hired longtime assistant coach Jeff Cassar to take over the reins. Cassar called on mainstay Andy Williams to serve as assistant coach and added Daryl Shore, Craig Waibel and Paul Dalglish to round out his staff.
RSL has repeatedly proven it can succeed in the regular season and early in the playoffs and tournaments like CONCACAF Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup. The question is whether this year’s iteration finally seal the deal in a major match. The Claret and Cobalt have not secured a trophy since their unexpected run in the 2009 MLS Cup. In a year of transition, Cassar and his new staff will try to do what Kreis hasn’t been able to accomplish in awhile: win it all.
Here is a closer look at the 2014 edition of Real Salt Lake:
REAL SALT LAKE SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: MLS Cup Runners-up; 16-10-8, 56 points (Second in the Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Luke Mulholland, Jordan Allen
KEY LOSSES: Jason Kreis (left to become head coach of NYCFC), Yordany Alvarez (traded to Orlando City SC), Lovel Palmer (traded to Chicago Fire)
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Jordan Allen – A product of Real Salt Lake’s Grande Sports Academy, Allen is coming off a freshman campaign with the Virginia Cavaliers that ended in the College Cup semifinals. Allen was mostly employed at right back when playing for Real Salt Lake’s reserves, but he has seen time as an attacking midfielder this preseason. Given RSL’s depth, Allen might have a hard time seeing the field this season, but he has the talent to contribute when called upon.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Alvaro Saborio — The Costa Rican forward had an up-and-down season last year because of injuries and national team call-ups that limited his playing time. He showcased his usual nose for goal when he saw action, but a handful of talented young attackers are waiting in the wings. Saborio will have to consistently contribute this season to quiet any rumblings of lineup changes.
RSL will start out with a murderer’s row of opponents in March that begins at the Stub Hub Center against the LA Galaxy and doesn’t let up with subsequent games at San Jose, a return leg against the Galaxy and a March 29 match against the newly-remodeled Toronto FC. April doesn’t start out much better with an MLS Cup rematch against defending champion Sporting Kansas City on tap.
Cassar’s squad will be put to the test early, leaving no time for a hangover from last season. On the positive side, RSL’s depth is probably the strongest it’s been in franchise history. Almost every position has multiple players that can step in and play well.
Cassar will be tasked with managing players he knows well and who have been complimentary of the first-time head coach thus far. Cassar has said RSL’s mindset and strategy will largely stay the same.
It’s hard to know what to expect out of RSL out of the gate as they figure out exactly who they want to be under the new coaching regime. Preseason results have been mixed. The club finished the preseason on a positive note, however, scoring four goals—three of them from Saborio—over the final two preseason matches.
Saborio will be looking to have a bounce-back year after his 2013 season was littered with minor injuries. Despite only playing in 16 matches, the Costa Rican national notched 12 goals, displaying a ruthless efficiency while on the pitch.
Young forwards Devon Sandoval, Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia will also look to contribute to an offense that was among the league’s most potent in 2013. RSL scored 57 goals last season, good for second-best in MLS.
Cassar can make everybody feel better about losing Jason Kreis if he can fill the cabinet with some shiny hardware. It would be an accomplishment for the rookie head coach to secure any of the three major trophies in 2014, but the team certainly has the talent and experience to compete right away.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP