As head coach Jeff Cassar enters his third season in charge of Real Salt Lake, the club will be hoping to rebound from a difficult 2015 season.
Despite two victories against Sporting Kansas City, and one win each against the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, last season proved to be nothing more than a disappointment for RSL.
The team’s 6-4 defeat against D.C. United on Aug. 1 was ultimately the dagger in the hearts of Salt Lake. Including that match, Cassar and his side went on to lose eight of its final 12 fixtures to close out the regular season, which resulted in a ninth place finish in the Western Conference and the club missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2007.
“Last season certainly wasn’t what we expect from ourselves, but I really do think that we have something special here this season,” Cassar told SBI. “Our players came into preseason in probably the best shape I’ve seen from the start, which is extremely beneficial for all of us and our preparation. We really have big plans, though, this season, and while it does start with Champions League, we also are obviously making it a priority to get back into the MLS playoffs as well.”
While Cassar’s outlook on 2016 can only be noted as positive, RSL certainly made some changes during the offseason. U.S. midfielder Luis Gil, the most notable of the team’s losses, completed a transfer to Liga MX side Querétaro. RSL did however bring back two club favorites to soften the blow.
Here’s a closer look at what to expect from Real Salt Lake in 2016:
REAL SALT LAKE SEASON PREVIEW
2015 FINISH: 11-15-8, 41 points (ninth in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Danilo Acosta, Yura Movsisyan, Chris Wingert, Omar Holness, Max Lachowecki, Amass Amankona
KEY LOSSES: Luis Gil, Luis Silva, Elias Vasquez, Sebastian Jaime, Abdoulie Mansally
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Danilo Acosta. After making three appearances last season for USL side Real Monarchs, Acosta officially joined RSL this offseason at the age of 18. As a player that resembles the on-field play of teammate Jordan Allen, Acosta presents a lot of good traits that Cassar’s team can take advantage of. Acosta’s ability to play both in the midfield and defense gives RSL different options for the upcoming season. Given his strong preseason performances, Cassar told SBI he is very pleased with Acosta’s progression.
PRESSURE IS ON: Jordan Allen. Most 20-year-olds don’t face the type of pressure that Allen will this season. After missing almost all of the 2014 season due to injury, the versatile American bounced back nicely last season, making 11 starts in 23 appearances for RSL. With Allen’s experience both at Salt Lake and with the U.S. Under-20 National Team, expect a lot of the youngster in 2016, particularly a strong contribution at outside back.
While 2015 turned out to be less than optimal for RSL, Cassar is ready to turn the page on last year’s disappointments.
After ending last season on a three-game losing streak, this offseason called for big changes in the ranks of RSL. Disappointment may have been what the team was feeling right after the season’s close, but Cassar thinks his team is equipped to complete a massive turnaround based on the club’s preseason effort.
“We’re really excited about playing in these big games in 2016,” Cassar said. “Last season didn’t necessarily go as we had planned, but we’ve added some good pieces and I think that we can really contend not just in MLS, but in CONCACAF Champions League as well. We’ve undergone changes like every other team, and to lose someone like Luis was massive, but we’ve pushed on and we think that we still have a ton of talent in our squad.
“We’re playing against good teams in the preseason which is also a big lift for us. We went down to Tijuana and faced a good side there, so I think things are really coming together for us.”
While the loss of Luis Gil can’t be understated, two familiar faces in Chris Wingert and Yura Movsisyan provide the club with hope.
While the acquisition of Wingert is likely seen more as a piece to provide depth within the team, the defender, now in his ninth season with Salt Lake, can easily step in and fill different positions if needed. Injuries plagued the RSL defense in 2015, so the re-signing of Wingert is certainly a logical decision if the worst were to occur. In the meantime, veterans Jamison Olave and Tony Beltran look poised to anchor the back line, with Aaron Maund and Demar Phillips rounding out the defense.
Last season, the squad’s 38 goals scored ranked second-to-last in MLS, while their 48 goals allowed was ninth out of 10 Western Conference teams.
While experienced midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales will hold down the fort in the center of the park, RSL added several new pieces into the mix this offseason to give the team further assistance. Homegrown signing Danilo Acosta and 2016 first-round pick Omar Holness are each expected to push for minutes, giving Cassar’s side solid options off the bench.
Up front, RSL boasts a solid attack with the return of Movsisyan. The 28-year old spent three years previously with the club from 2007 to 2009, scoring 15 goals in 53 matches. He’ll be joined by Juan Manuel Martinez and Joao Plata on the wings. Plata, when healthy, has been especially important for RSL in recent years. With extremely quick pace in one-on-one situations, the Ecuadorian can continue to score plenty of goals in 2016.
“I think the biggest thing for our team is to regroup and think about what we’ve done in the past,” Wingert told SBI. “A lot of our guys have been together for awhile now, and I think that plays into what we’re trying to do here. Chemistry is something that all the good teams have and we have previously had at this club. In 2009, we were one of the lucky teams to get into the playoffs and the rest is history.”
Wingert firmly believes that getting into the playoffs is half the battle, and that once that happens, anything is possible.
“I would say that we want to get back into the playoffs,” he said. “I think Portland again showed that if you can make it into the playoffs that anything can happen. You just need to hit your stride at the right time, which we did in 2009. We want to continue to challenge for trophies, so MLS Cup is certainly one of our goals.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP