Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By TYLER GRAY
In a year that was supposed to be a rebuilding one for Real Salt Lake, the status of their head coach, Jason Kreis, is more of a question mark than their current roster.
After offloading Jamison Olave, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola in the offseason, it was largely the belief that this year would be a rocky one for the Utah side. However, RSL finished second in the Western Conference and has been arguably the hottest team in the postseason entering the MLS Cup final, largely on the backs of its younger players.
General manager Garth Lagerway spoke of the decision to make such drastic changes at the end of last year in conference with the media.
“Obviously it’s not something we hope to do every day; trading away three all-stars at the end of a season,” Lagerway said. “But we went five games last year at the end of the season without scoring and we felt like we had a Champion’s League group that we should’ve advanced out of, but we didn’t. So we thought we had to change some things up.”
RSL has now scored seven goals in its last three matches and exhibits none of the offensive struggles of last year’s squad.
Lagerway went on to praise the efforts of his coaching staff who seemingly made all the right moves en route to an MLS Cup berth. The veteran backbone of the team deserves plenty of credit as well for holding the team together in a period of transition and mentoring the sudden infusion of younger players.
Midfielder Ned Grabavoy spoke of the many contributions that the younger players made on the roster throughout the season.
“We’ve kind of had to shuffle things around a lot this year,” Grabavoy said. “Maybe it was for the best to have that happen at the beginning of the year to get guys time and get guys confident.”
Most of the credit should indeed be given to RSL’s head coach who navigated the regular and postseasons with aplomb; out-coaching both Bruce Arena and MLS Coach of the Year winner, Caleb Porter. Kreis has earned every bit of the speculation that has associated him with the head coaching position of New York City FC, the 20th expansion franchise in MLS.
For Kreis’ part, he insists that he hasn’t made any decision yet and that he’ll take a few days after the conclusion of MLS Cup to withdraw and really think it through.
In the meantime, the RSL boss still has one or two decisions to be made before this season ends. The questionable health of defender Chris Wingert and the possible reinsertion of Designated Player Alvaro Saborio up top should remain foremost in his mind.
Rookie forward Devon Sandoval was thrust into the starting role during the playoffs and has done a remarkable job so far. He has filled the role of Saborio without missing a beat, and the fact that he has created even the tiniest debate over who should start on Dec. 7 is a credit to the job that he has done.
RSL has been here before. In 2009 they won it all over a heavily favored LA Galaxy team but since then they have stumbled on the big stage. The Champion’s League Final in 2011 and the U.S. Open Cup embarrassment earlier this year both serve as reminders to not take anything for granted.
This team seems to have quieted the voice in the back of their minds asking if they could win the big one when it counts by making it this far, but they could silence it completely if they take care of business in Kansas City.
Validation and legacy are easily discussed with the possibility of two titles in just five years for the small-market club, but they face a significant barrier in Sporting Kansas City who will look to disrupt RSL’s signature possession-oriented style.
Sporting Kansas City will be in front of their home crowd and playing with a midfielder that rivals RSL’s own classic diamond. Midfielders Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber will be tasked with creating the offense and Oriol Rosell and Paula Nagamura will provide the bite in the back. Sporting KC will look to pressure RSL into turnovers and mistakes and the claret-and-cobalt will have to stay composed if they want a shot at a victory.
“Sometimes, I think going on the road a little bit can help you focus more,’ Grabavoy said. “I hope we use that. I know that we can play good soccer on the road and win games. But we know that we’re going to deal with a tough crowd and tough circumstances. But in saying that, I think that this group is built to do that.”