How do you balance making the right moves to compete while searching for new ownership? That is the big question for Real Salt Lake going into its second full season under manager Freddy Juarez.
The first full season under Juarez was a step back for the 2009 MLS Cup Champions, but there is optimism that this season will be different.
“I believe the team is a team that wants to win and they want to compete,” Juarez told SBI. “So for us, I think we all believe we can get into the playoffs. That’s the goal, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so let’s focus on the process and get better everyday.”
It has been a quiet offseason at Real Salt Lake in large part because of the uncertainty surrounding ownership, but Juarez was clear that he and the coaching staff are focused on the present.
“It’s not about what is the future of the club, it’s let’s get to work and control what we can control. We just got to do the best that we can with what we have right now, bringing new players wasn’t an issue and we’re just excited about how training has been going.”
In terms of additions, forward Rubio Rubin joins RSL from the San Diego Loyal in the USL and forward Bobby Wood will sign a three-year contract in July on a free transfer after his contract with German side Hamburg expires this summer. Winger Anderson Julio has also joined on loan from San Luis.
Rubin and Wood both come to RSL carrying a bit of international pedigree, having been capped by the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past.
Wood, 28, has seen his career stagnate in the last few years with Hamburg in the 2. Bundesliga, but RSL are hoping he is still a player that can score at a high level.
“We are excited to have Bobby come in to give us a great option of his quality in our attack,” Juarez told reporters. “He brings many years of European experience and experience with our national team and we are looking forward to having him here to compete and make everyone better.”
Outside of the three attack-minded signings, one of the biggest moves for RSL was trading 2018 MLS Rookie of the Year Corey Baird to LAFC for $500,000 in General Allocation Money spread across 2021 and 2022, a 2021 international roster slot and future considerations.
Starting center back Justen Glad, 23, has inked a four-year extension and keeper Andrew Putna re-signed for another season after finishing the season as the starter between the posts.
Club legend Kyle Beckerman retired after an 18-year MLS career and is the second key veteran to retire in consecutive seasons after long-time keeper Nick Rimando announced his retirement in 2019.
Here is a closer look at Real Salt Lake heading into 2021:
2021 Real Salt Lake Season Preview
2020 Finish: 11th in West (5-7-10, 22 points, missed the playoffs)
Key Acquisitions: Rubio Rubin, Anderson Julio (loan), Bobby Wood
Key Losses: Corey Baird, Kyle Beckerman
Newcomer to watch: Bobby Wood
Wood will join the team in July, but the expectations will be high once he is stateside. Once an important part of the U.S. Men’s National Team picture, Wood has been a forgotten man since his last call up in 2018, scoring just one goal in 452 minutes for German side Hamburg over the last two seasons.
At 28, the American striker should have plenty left in the tank to make an impact in MLS, and for a free transfer, this is a low-cost, high-reward signing. If it all clicks, Wood and Albert Rusnák have the potential to lead RSL towards playoff contention as an underrated attacking duo in MLS. On the flipside, if RSL is unable to stay above water until Wood arrives in July, or the striker is no longer the player he once was, RSL is looking at a repeat of last season.
Pressure is on: David Ochoa
It is not often that a 19 year-old goalkeeper receives a U.S. Men’s National Team call-up and is the starter during Olympic Qualifying despite having just one MLS start to his name.
Heralded as the long-term replacement for Nick Rimando, last season was expected to be the first chance for Ochoa to show he is the number one of the future for RSL. Instead, Ochoa received one start and spent the majority of the MLS season in the USL with Real Monarchs.
For the first team, Zac McMath was brought in and 2017 SuperDraft pick Andrew Punta became the starter by the end of the season. All three players have returned this season, but Ochoa remains the player with the highest upside in the group.
“If he is the high potential we think he is, then we have to give him a shot,” said Juarez. “Does that mean he’s gonna play all 34 games? No, but we’re going to give him trust. We understand that he’s gonna make mistakes. That’s what makes him him.”
Is anyone going to help Albert Rusnák? The Slovakian midfielder is one of the best playmakers in all of MLS, but outside of him RSL lacks proven offensive options. The acquisitions of Wood, Rubin and Julio suggests that RSL is committed to building around their star man, but time will tell if that is enough support.
“We created more than enough chances last year and didn’t take advantage of those chances.”
Wood is the obvious name that can provide a scoring threat, for a side that only scored 25 goals last season, but Juarez was quick to shut down any talk that Wood is the only answer at the position.
“There are a few guys. I want to shy away from this thing where Bobby [Wood] is the savior, Rubio Rubin is a high-level player and we need that,” said Juarez. “I don’t want to lose sight of Rubin, we’re bringing in Bobby Wood, but he’s just going to be another part of the team and Rubin is someone that’s going to be competing for those minutes”
Another option to step up is Designated Player Jeizon Ramírez who struggled with fitness and seldom featured in his first MLS season. Signed from Deportivo Táchira last summer, a step forward from him will go a long way in answering some questions in the attack for an RSL.
As for how the team will lineup, Juarez mentioned the 4-2-3-1 as a base formation, stressing the importance of controlling the number advantage in the build up or defense regardless of the alignment.
“We want to try to build with five players and try to have five players in the attack. In that structure, we want to have width and that can look a lot of different ways. Those are the numbers I like, having two wide players between the lines and a number 9 that can stay central.”
In the midfield it is all built around defensive-midfielder Everton Ruiz who has become one of the best in the league at his position since arriving from S.P.A.L. in 2019.
Who starts alongside Luiz remains a question mark, but the play of Pablo Ruiz at the end of the season makes him a favorite to start at the double pivot with Luiz.
In defense, the same back four of Donny Toia, Marcelo Silva, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera return from last season. Herrera and Glad come into the season after taking part in the USMNT U-23’s Olympic Qualifying campaign in May and came through the RSL academy with Juarez.
“It brings a lot of happiness, because you shared all those times with them,” Juarez said. “Not just the soccer field, but understanding the work that they had to do and they’re now playing in front of TV and enjoying what they’re doing, which is awesome.”
At goalkeeper, the competition remains open, but it seems that David Ochoa will be given an extended opportunity.
“If he does start at the beginning it doesn’t mean he’s not gonna get pulled out later,” Juarez said. “It’s a competition. But one thing we know is, he’s a very good goalkeeper.”
There are more questions than answers at this point for RSL in part because of the lack of clarity with ownership, but this is a team ripe with opportunity for players to step up and make a claim to be part of future plans.
“If we really want to win, we have to get better every day,” Juarez told SBI. “Our standards of training demands that we try to be exceptional every day, we won’t be perfect, but if we can chase that, I believe we’ll be a tough team to play.”
Real Salt Lake Roster
Goalkeepers: Zac MacMath, David Ochoa, Andrew Putna, Jeff Dewsnup.
Defenders: Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Erik Holt, Ashtone Morgan, Noah Powder, Marcelo Silva, Donny Toia, Andrew Brody, Tate Schmitt, Bret Hasley.
Midfielders: Nick Besler, Maikel Chang, Everton Luiz, Damir Kreilach, Justin Portillo, Pablo Ruiz, Albert Rusnak,
Forwards: Bode Davis, Chris Garcia, Milan Iloski, Anderson Julio, Douglas Martinez, Justin Meram, Jeizon Ramirez, Rubio Rubin, Bobby Wood.