Real Salt Lake flew under the radar in the Western Conference in 2018, but made a big statement after reaching the playoffs.
Overshadowed by teams like Sporting KC, the Portland Timbers, and LAFC, RSL used an underdog mentality to finish sixth in the West and advance as far as the quarterfinals of the Western Conference Playoffs. Their surprising run would end at the hands of SKC, but the team proved it can contend with the talent in the West and have kept plenty of talent for this season.
Led by rising midfielders Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach, RSL rolled to 49 points and knocked off several of the West’s heavy hitters in the regular season. Rusnak and Kreilach will play major roles for the team again after combining for 26 goals and 10 assists between them in 2018.
The ageless wonder Nick Rimando returns in goal after earning his 200th MLS win last season. Justen Glad and Marcelo Silva are the anchors in an underrated backline which will aim to trim their 58 goals allowed from a season ago.
Kyle Beckerman will continue to be used in the No. 6 role to cover the backline and show his aggressiveness in the middle of the field. At 36, Beckerman has showed zero signs of slowing down after 34 appearances a year ago, and will prove to be big for RSL in 2019. He will be paired with loanee Everton Luiz to help anchor the midfield behind RSL’s impressive set of playmakers.
Outside of Kreilach and Rusnak, defending Rookie of the Year winner Corey Baird, Sebastian Saucedo, and Jefferson Savarino all will see time in the attacking front for RSL. Baird is coming off an eight-goal, five-assist haul in 2018 whole the remaining two totaled 11 goals. Brooks Lennon is also an option at forward with his hardworking nature while recent Designated Player signing Sam Johnson also provides depth at the position.
RSL will be an exciting team to watch this season and to see if they can add to their surprising success from a season ago.
Here’s a closer look at Real Salt Lake heading into 2019:
2019 REAL SALT LAKE SEASON PREVIEW
2018 FINISH: 6th place in West (14-7-13, 46 points)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Everton Luiz, Sam Johnson, Erik Holt, Tate Schmitt, Danny Toia, Luis Arriaga, David Ochoa, Julian Vazquez.
KEY LOSSES: Danilo Acosta, Luis Silva, Sunny, Ricky Lopez-Espin, Luke Mulholland, Jose Hernandez, Demar Phillips, Taylor Peay, David Horst, Shawn Berry, Connor Sparrow.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Sam Johnson
25-year-old forward Sam Johnson adds another versatile option to Mike Petke’s squad. Johnson has reached double-digits in goals scored for each of the last four teams he’s played with, but has yet to play in MLS. After being signed to a Designated Player contract, Johnson will need to prove his worth to a new group of coaches and teammates but has the ability to score goals and help the team immediately.
PRESSURE IS ON: Joao Plata
With a wide-range of attackers and playmakers on this roster, Plata will need to continue to make an impact when called upon. The 26-year-old scored eight goals and had 10 assists in 2018 but is not a shoe-in to become a regular starter this season with several other players fighting for minutes. If Plata cane come up with production early then he could very well be starting every match for RSL.
Depth is not a problem for Petke, who has a never-ending list of attacking midfielders and forwards to choose from. Everywhere you look in the front half of their formation can give you goals and a spark, and RSL will need that in a very talented Western Conference.
On the back end, it will be interesting to see how the team lines up with several players gone from the offseason. Glad and Silva are projected starters in central defense for Petke but players like Tony Beltran, Donny Toia, and Aaron Herrera will work their way into the mix for starting roles at fullback.
Danilo Acosta’s loan to Orlando City sees one possible option gone while Adam Henley and Chinedum Onuoha are depth options at best for the club.
Everton Luiz’s arrival should help lighten the load on Beckerman in the middle of the field. Luiz has plenty of experience and should make a smooth transition from Serie A.
RSL posted one of the worst road records in the league in 2018 (3-11-3), but showed in the postseason that it can compete away from Rio Tinto Stadium. If Petke can improve RSL’s road fortunes, a 50-point season is within reach, along with a return to the playoffs.