By IVES GALARCEP
At first glance, Real Salt Lake’s handful of major roster moves on Monday might have been seen as an act of desperation for a club in dire need of salary cap relief. A closer look reveal the calculated maneuvering of a front office that knows more than most just what it takes to rebuild a team and keep it competitive.
Anyone who has followed Major League Soccer long enough knows that keeping very good teams together for extended periods of time is next to impossible. Sustained success leads to increased salary demands and, over time, a strong nucleus becomes too expensive to keep together.
This process has forced many of the league’s so-called dynasties to be broken up. The early D.C. United teams were eventually taken apart, as was the San Jose Earthquakes side that won multiple titles. The two-time defending champion LA Galaxy will have to start making major changes as well very soon.
Real Salt Lake is in a similar situation, only the big difference is this RSL team didn’t win multiple championships. RSL won the 2009 MLS Cup, but fell short in the subsequent three years despite having one of the stronger teams in the league. The failure to win a second trophy didn’t stop RSL’s best players from continuing to play well and earn bigger salaries, which made this off-season’s reconstruction project inevitable.
So if you can’t avoid it, you have no choice but to be ready for when it comes, and RSL is as prepared as a team could be to handle a roster shake-up. Here is a closer look at what RSL has done, and what they have left to do.
Having to part ways with effective starters is made much easier when you have already developed players capable of replacing those you are forced to trade or release. As imposing a defender as Jamison Olave is, his history of injury issues has allowed RSL to see plenty of Chris Schuler in recent years and Schuler has all the characteristics to become a top-notch centerback. Kwame Watson-Siriboe also looked to be a viable option as well after stepping in and starting soon after being acquired from Chicago.
Then you have Will Johnson, who seems like an indispensable piece to the puzzle. RSL had a chance to give Luis Gil heavy minutes in 2012 and the young midfielder impressed considerably, looking every bit like a player worth keeping in the lineup. That made parting with Johnson and his high salary ($243,750 in 2012, sure to be higher in 2013) that much easier.
By trading a trio of starters for a large haul of allocation money believed to be more than $500,000, RSL not only became a younger team, they also cleared serious cap space to re-sign players like Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran. They also helped create room for the sizable cap hit Gil’s contract will deliver in 2013. The maneuvers also give the team some wiggle room as RSL begin negotations with playmaker Javier Morales.
Real Salt Lake also has the resources now to sign a forward, a position that became a glaring need in 2012 as mis-firing forwards left the RSL attack looking toothless in key moments, both in the MLS playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League.
So what might the team look like in 2013? Here is one projection:
If Gil continues to improve and if Schuler lives up to the standard he has shown in recent years, RSL will remain right in the conversation among the top teams in MLS. And if general manager Garth Lagerwey and head coach Jason Kreis can land a quality forward to partner with Saborio, RSL could wind up coming through their extreme makeover an even stronger team than they were a year ago.
And if things go badly? If Gill can’t handle a bigger role, or if Schuler doesn’t blossom in a full-time role? RSL could wind up struggling, but still has too much quality to slip too far. The team has set itself up with the roster flexibility to make more changes a year from now if necessary, only it won’t be as dramatic a makeover as the one the team just went through.
Parting with some key players wasn’t easy, but RSL has handled the process very well and signs point to a team that should be just as good, if not better, in 2013.