Real Salt Lake will be defined by two key features in 2018: youth and consistency.
The youth factor comes from their eight players under the age of 21, including key players Justin Glad and Danny Acosta. Being young means the team is going to need time to grow into itself as RSL looks to contend down the stretch.
“Realistically, we’re young,” general manager Craig Waibel told SBI. “It’s going to be important that we don’t rush the idea of success within our group. We have to give our youth time to grow.”
One thing that’s helping the team grow is the presence of head coach Mike Petke. Petke took over at Real Salt Lake at the end of March last year and helped the team recover from a slow start, missing the playoffs by only two points after finishing the season with an 8-3-4 record in their final 15 matches.
This is Petke’s first preseason with the team and Waibel already sees an impact coming from the former Red Bulls boss.
“It’s great that Mike’s in there from the beginning,” he said. “I think that we’re starting to see the results of the changes he was implementing in the second half of last season.”
The other factor contributing to the development of youth players is the veteran leadership that’s been with the team for years. Kyle Beckerman is entering his 12th season in Utah, and he is pleased with what he sees in the young kids coming in.
“I think we’re getting these young guys a lot of experience,” Beckerman told SBI. “They got another year under their belt. I think you see a lot of confidence in them coming back for a second or third year and still being young. You definitely see some confidence, which is great to see, even some leadership from these guys.”
“Seeing those guys out there, it keeps Nick [Rimando] and I a bit younger. It keeps us young and hungry and it’s just a good all around feeling.”
Beckerman is one of the 11 starters returning to the team from the end of last season. Couple that with two strong players coming over from European second divisions in Damir Kreilach and Alfredo Ortuño and he feels this team is ready to make a run beyond the first round of the playoffs.
“It’s a marker that you can set, saying let’s make it to the playoffs, but we want more,” he said. “We want to be fighting for the top spot in the west, we want to be in the conversations for the different trophies and not just make the playoffs. That’s going to be the minimum, but we’re setting our sights a bit higher.”
Waibel won’t go as far to join Beckerman is his optimism, but he does feel he’s built a club that’s set to compete in a wide open Western Conference.
“I think the West is a bit of a wild card in terms of a conference this year,” he said “There are some teams that look very daunting, there are some teams that look very promising. I think we fit in the second one. I have an eerie suspicion, much like last year the Western Conference might prove some people right and some people wrong. I think it’s very hard to predict.”
Here’s a closer look at Real Salt Lake:
REAL SALT LAKE SEASON PREVIEW
2017 Finish: 13-15-6 (8th in the West)
Key Acquisitions: Alfredo Ortuño, Damir Kreilach, Pablo Ruiz
Key Losses: Chris Wingert, Omar Holness, Chad Barrett
Newcomer to Watch: Damir Kreilach
Kreilach comes from Union Berlin in the German 2. Bundesliga, where he scored 23 goals in two and a half seasons as a holding midfielder. His offensive production tailed off towards the end of his tenure, but as those numbers fell, his defensive production came to life. He’s a strong tackler that can serve as an excellent shield for the young Real Salt Lake back line. He may not completely replace the aging Kyle Beckerman this season, but he certainly appears to be the heir apparent in the defensive midfielder.
Pressure Is On: Yura Movsisyan
The forward announced his return to MLS in 2016 with a nine goal season over 30 MLS appearances. He took a step back last year due to injuries with only seven goals in 28 games. This year, the 30-year-old forward needs to prove he can bring back that 2016 form and not allow the youth to take over his job. The club signed Alfredo Ortuño specifically to address the striker position, which means Movsisyan will have limited playing time to prove he still belongs with a club looking to get younger.
Real Salt Lake missed out on the playoffs by a mere two points last season. After a slow start and a coaching change, they stormed back into the Western Conference playoff race and narrowly missed out on the postseason party in the end.
A quicker start should be in order for the team thanks to Mike Petke’s vision and the bulk of last year’s team returning to the fold, but the obstacles of youth could still get in the way.
“We want to be a possession based team an entertaining team in the attacking half,” Waibel said. “But, let’s be fair when you’re relying on a lot of young guys to establish that, you are also relying on their personalities and their character to grow.”
There is also the potential impact additions of Kreilach and Ortuño to consider. They were brought in to give Petke and his coaching staff more options during matches and to give them a new angle to look at the game. Waibel isn’t sure RSL had that last year, even during the hot streak at the end of the season.
Returning Brooks Lennon, who spent last season on loan from Liverpool, is also a stabilizing force out wide. He worked his way into the team and scored three goals while impressing enough to get a call-in to January Camp.
They also return a full back line that had the fourth best defensive record in the Western Conference last year. Another year together for Justin Glad and Marcelo Silva in the middle should make them stronger. There is also the youth on the outside Danilo Acosta providing speed going forward as well as responsibility at the back.
“From the perspective of a good stretch in the second half of the season I think we had that, but I’m really not sure how many tough decisions the coaching staff had to make and in terms of when they look down the bench,” Waibel said. “Was there anyone there that was making us thing, oh we have another option, or we can present this another way? That was the main reason we went about the offseason the way we did. We felt like we needed more depth in the center of the field and felt like, as does every single team in the entire world that we needed to challenge the striker position.”
Kreilach figures to slot into the central midfield right away and Ortuño is a natural goal scorer that will start up front. Both should help create more goals on a team that had trouble scoring at times last year. Ortuño could easily be the leading scorer on a team that didn’t have anyone score more than seven last season.
As for the end product this year, Real Salt Lake could make a return to the MLS Cup Playoffs, and it wouldn’t take anything outrageous. The team got younger and more talented, particularly up front, and they carry over a great deal of MLS experience that can help integrate the new faces into the side rather quickly.
The Western Conference race is wide open this year and RSL are in a good position to compete for a playoff spot. Beckerman’s dream of competing for the top spot might be a bit of a pipe dream, but a playoff berth, and a playoff win, are hardly out of the question.