Pivot toward youth: Playoffs or not, RSL has vindicated its change of course

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

They've climbed back into the 2017 playoff reckoning, but the long-term future looks even brighter for RSL.

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Kyle Beckerman has made a career of coming up huge for Real Salt Lake.

On Saturday, the 35-year-old RSL captain did so again, scoring with the final kick of the game to give 10-man Salt Lake a much-needed 1-1 draw at the LA Galaxy. The result keeps RSL’s once-unlikely playoff hopes alive.

RSL still has an uphill climb, but sits in the sixth and final playoff spot in the West, ahead of San Jose and Dallas via tiebreakers. Dallas has a game in hand on both RSL and San Jose, but regardless of qualification, there’s plenty of reason for hope in Utah. That’s largely due to the group of players that engulfed Beckerman in a wild celebration after his goal.

Young Designated Players Albert Rusnak and Jefferson Savarino and academy products Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon, Danilo Acosta and Sebastian Saucedo have emerged in varying degrees as legitimate stars and impact players this year for RSL. All but the 23-year-old Rusnak are 20 or younger, and all have helped Salt Lake pull off a smooth transition between generations that bodes well for 2018.

A few uncertain seasons riding the aging Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Javier Morales — who left the club acrimoniously this winter and joined FC Dallas — brought mixed results and a myriad of questions over the club’s future. A tumultuous start to the season exacerbated those doubts, but a shift away from the veterans who served as RSL’s foundation over the past decade has given way to a fruitful youth movement.

Salt Lake struggled severely while opening the season without a few of its better young players, starting 0-2-1 and firing former head coach Jeff Cassar before the end of March. To take his place, the team promoted ex-Red Bulls boss Mike Petke from USL affiliate Real Monarchs.

Things didn’t exactly take off right away. RSL went 4-8-0 in Petke’s first 12 matches in charge, a tough stretch that culminated with an embarrassing 6-2 loss at Dallas on June 3. That left RSL with the worst points-per-game average in MLS and a putrid minus-35 goal differential.

Since Real Salt Lake beat Minnesota on June 17, however, it has been an entirely different story. RSL is 8-4-4 in its last 16 games including that win against Minnesota, tied with Columbus for the fifth-best record in the league in that span. Salt Lake’s goal differential is a dramatic plus-29 in the stretch, good enough to bump to minus-6 on the year and put the club ahead of San Jose in the standings.

It's no coincidence that the start of RSL’s remarkable run came in the first game after Glad, Acosta, Lennon and Saucedo returned from helping the U.S. to the quarterfinals of the Under-20 World Cup. Glad, Acosta and Lennon all started in the win against the Loons, while Saucedo came off the bench as a late sub.

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Justen Glad (Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)

Glad and Acosta have played particularly significant roles down the stretch, with Glad starting every match since making his season debut against Minnesota and Acosta starting five of RSL’s last six. Both have played well along the backline, but it’s been Glad’s stellar play and solid partnership with summer signing Marcelo Silva that have transformed the RSL defense into a respectable outfit.

The youth movement is found throughout the field. Rusnak has been one of the better attacking midfielders in the league this season, recording seven goals and 13 assists in 28 appearances and two goals and six assists in his last seven games. Though he only joined RSL in May, Savarino has been no less intriguing. The 20-year-old Venezuelan international has six goals and five assists in his 21 appearances, including two strikes and two helpers in his last four matches.

Along with the 25-year-old Ecuadorian international Plata, 28-year-old Silva, veteran right back Tony Beltran, a rejuvenated Rimando and club icon Beckerman, the young players are a big part of an interesting core for RSL. They’ve helped the club quickly transition from a fading outfit that appeared to have little hope early in the season to a potential playoff surprise with plenty of promise for 2018.

All that change has occurred at a dramatic pace, a testament to both the players themselves and to Petke, who, by all accounts, has dramatically improved the culture inside the locker room.

The club has a lot of work to do this winter to keep it all together (Beckerman and Rimando will both be free agents, while loans expire for both Savarino and Lennon), but things are looking up after a bleak start to the season. If RSL adds another central midfielder, gets Yura Movsisyan’s DP contract off the books and signs a proven striker, expectations will be rightfully high next spring.

RSL still needs an occasional big moment from Beckerman and Rimando, but the team no longer has to rely solely on the club legends. The transition hasn’t always been seamless, but there’s new, young talent on board and ready to take control. Playoffs or not, that’s cause for optimism at Real Salt Lake.

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