photo by Bill Barrett/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Real Salt Lake almost had an unprecedented season in 2011, but the promising year ended sourly after the team fell short on two big occasions.
RSL was unable to finish off dream runs in the MLS playoffs and CONCACAF Champions league, losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference Final and falling to Monterrey in heartbreaking fashion in the Champions League final.
The disappointment of failing to finish last year is what has RSL hungry to return to prominence in 2012. With one of the most talented starting lineups, a group of incoming youngsters and a fortress in Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL looks poised for another big season.
"We've done a lot of coaching in this preseason, a lot of competing this preseason," said Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis. "We feel like we've brought along eight or nine new players now and are teaching them what it is to be apart of our club, what kind of tactics we deploy and how we see the game and how we want to play it. We feel like we've made some really good strides."
Here is a closer look at Real Salt Lake ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
REAL SALT LAKE 2012 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 15-11-8, 53 points (third in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: D Diogo de Almeida, F Emiliano Bonfigli, M Enzo Martinez, M Sebastian Velasquez, GK Eduardo Fernandez, D Leone Cruz, M Jonny Steele, D Terukazu Tanaka
KEY LOSSES: M Jean Alexandre, M Andy Williams, D Nelson Gonzalez, M Arturo Alvarez, GK Tim Melia, M Collen Warner, D Rauwshan McKenzie, D Robbie Russell, M Blake Wagner,
If you look at Real Salt Lake's starting lineup, the team looks quite like the one that has been among the league's best the past two seasons. With Nick Rimando in goal, Kyle Beckerman manning the midfield and Alvaro Saborio posing a threat to score every time he touches the ball near goal, RSL should continue to be among the league's best so long as they stay healthy.
Where Real Salt Lake differs from last year's squad is in terms of depth. Gone are role players like defender Robbie Russell and midfielder Andy Williams.
To replace them, RSL has turned to players like Diogo de Almeida and Enzo Martinez, players deemed to have good upsides but who are low on experieence.
"We have a very strong starting group," said Kreis. "That group has now been here for many years and playing together. We have a tremendous amount of belief in those players and we're going to support them until the dying days."
"The question marks come when we get on down past 13, 14 players. What we have this year that is different than a lot of years is that literally those players have little to zero professional experience. The questions are there for them to answer. That doesn't mean that I don't think they are capable of it, it just means I'm just not sure either."
Just how successful RSL is this season will hinge on how those role players perform, especially with the Claret and Cobalt scheduled to play in the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League in addition to regular season matches.
"The fact is, with so many games, people are going to have to step up," said defender Tony Beltran. "Our first eleven, we're not going to be able to carry a team over 50 matches. It's just not realistic."
The return of attacking midfielder Javier Morales should help alleviate the need for those role players to make an impact. Morales has recovered from the devastating ankle injury that forced him to miss most of 2011, and has been working his way back to full fitness.
Unfortunately for Real Salt Lake, Morales picked up a right quadricep strain at the beginning of the team's preseason. That has limited his participation, and his fitness has suffered as a result.
"He's been traing fully for about a week and a half, so he's very much behind where the group is as far as soccer fitness and readiness," said Kreis. "He's going to need some time to get back all those things that make him special and the first and foremost is the aerobic fitness base."
RSL needs Morales back to his old self as soon as possible, especially considering that Western Conference heavyweights the Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas have brought back or added key pieces to their already-stacked teams.
"Whether it's creating or making a pass, things open up so much," said Beltran of Morales. "He's the type of player that when he gets the ball, things happen around him and he makes the game easier."
Having Morales back will be an added plus, but Real Salt Lake already has a potent attack capable of lighting up the scoreboard. With Saborio and Fabian Espindola spearheading the attack and talented youngster Luis Gil capable of opening up defenses, RSL should be a handful for any team.
"We were a step away from making it to the MLS Cup final, but we were also one goal from winning a Champions League final," said Beltran of the team's 2011 campaign. "Obviously we know what we're capable of. Anything less than a trophy is going to be unsuccessful this year."