Real Salt Lake missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years in 2015, a rude reminder that their stint as the league’s best-run club is finally over. Built on the notion that the team should be greater than the sum of its parts, Real Salt Lake ascended to the top of the MLS hierarchy thanks to a clear club identity, a defined style of play, and the contributions of numerous players brought to their peak under the watch of Garth Lagerwey and Jason Kreis. RSL knew who they were, and they leveraged that into successful season after successful season.
But Kreis and Lagerwey are gone, and reality is setting in for the men that replaced them. Head coach Jeff Cassar moved the side away from the 4-4-2 diamond that had come to define them and the players never really fully adapted to the new system. Despite the necessary talent up top, the team’s goalscoring abilities failed to threaten anyone.
The Big Question
Is this the year Javier Morales slows down? If it is, look out, because RSL is in trouble. With the formation shift not taken nearly as well as it should have in 2015, it was up to the evergreen Morales (he turned 36 in January) to be the main attacking threat. He produced eight goals and 12 assists, but as the season wound down, so did the Argentinian midfielder. It would be natural to see Morales lose effectiveness, but the prospect should frighten RSL’s coaching staff and fans alike.
The departure of Luis Gil (out of contract, signed with Queretaro) and Sebastian Saucedo (loaned to Veracruz) means there’s not even an understudy standing by should Morales prove unable to carry on at his usual level. It’s never a good sign when a team heads into a new campaign counting on a player over the age of 35 to play the full complement of matches and be the team’s best creative force.
Part of the reason the shift to the 4-3-3 failed last season was the lack of an effective center-forward. RSL shipped out ineffective Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio, and Devon Sandoval proved not to be the answer. Enter Yura Movsisyan, a former RSL player who returns to the team on loan from Spartak Moscow after six years in Europe.
Still only 28, Movsisyan evolved into a complete forward during stops in Denmark and Russia, and could be the key to making Cassar’s more open and dynamic 4-3-3 work. With Movsisyan at center-forward, players like Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez can play off him, using space and speed to their advantage.
The return of Movsisyan could also have a spiritual impact. Armenian by way of California, he embodies the old mentality of RSL – one built on a notion of family in a town that fully embraces the team – that took them to the playoffs seven straight times, delivered one MLS Cup and another Western Conference title, and helped the team go all the way to the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2011 before falling to Monterrey. Movsisyan missed much of that, but his infectious attitude and desire to reconnect to his RSL roots could jolt the club back into the mentality they lost last year.
From The Dugout
Having overseen a difficult transition from RSL’s long-revered diamond 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3, coach Jeff Cassar has been busy getting the personnel right. “We've addressed almost all of the areas that we needed to in the offseason with our roster,’ he said. “Obviously last year we made a big change in our formation and I think it was a massive time for implementing a new formation, and now guys are feeling more comfortable in that. So now this is where we really start to build and take off after knowing the system for a year.”
Much relies on the experienced Kyle Beckerman (33) and Javier Morales (36), but Cassar is confident is his aging lions: “A lot of credit has to go with the work that both of them have done in the offseason. They came back extremely fit – obviously a little more rested than we typically would've wanted, with such a long offseason – but they've taken care of their bodies exceptionally well. They both look fantastic in preseason so far.”
So how high is Cassar setting the bar for RSL? “Your first goal is to get into the playoffs and try to have home-field advantage. I believe that if we can stay healthy, we will put ourselves right in the thick of things – winning the Western Conference.
“But the key is staying injury-free. We're really concentrating on the workload on the players. I think we've added depth this year, which will help us to be able to keep players fresh and operating at 100%. It's going to make us better throughout the year and obviously in the playoffs.”
From The Locker Room
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman had a difficult season with his squad in 2015. “It was just tough, being from a team that was just constantly competing for pretty much everything, the Supporters’ Shield, Open Cup, and we’d make the playoffs – to all of a sudden kind of abandon that and not get the results,” Beckerman explains. “Hopefully, we can learn from those mistakes we made and get better from it this year.”
The club has been getting a lot of attention from Mexico, leading to prospects like Luis Gil moving south of the border – but Beckerman sees it as a good sign. “Now we’re on television a lot more in Mexico than in years past, and I think it’s opening the eyes of these Mexican teams to some of our players,” says the skipper. “I think it’s a good thing that comes with the progress of our league.”
What Beckerman doesn’t see as progressive is RSL missing the playoffs again. The midfielder indicated that the team had to get back to emphasizing fundamentals and strengthening teamwork. “This past year, we decided to really change and it was tough,” Beckerman admits. “It was extremely frustrating. We have to find ourselves again, get back to being a team that can be consistent."
This is Home
- RIO TINTO STADIUM
- CAPACITY: 20,213
- OPENED: October 9, 2008
- LOCATION: Sandy, UT
Fan’s Insider Tip
Matt Montgomery (@TheCrossbarRSL): Rio Tinto Stadium might seem like one of many suburban stadiums in MLS, but in a valley with population centers spread from end to end, it is a picturesque centerpiece to breathtaking vistas.
That’s how most describe Utah’s seat, and it’s hard not to agree. Mountains and canyons are mere minutes away from Real Salt Lake’s home, but for those who prefer their outdoors a little less altitude-bound, there’s Utah’s greatest national treasure, the Great Salt Lake, a mere 30-minute drive away. If you do free up the time, be sure to see if the Spiral Jetty — a stunning installation art piece — that’s about three hours away from the stadium.
For the more metropolitan visitors, Salt Lake City offers an array of restaurants, just as most other cities. Most of that on offer is quite edible, and while the city isn’t known for its culinary output, there are some surprising features. For example, there are several local burger chains (Crown Burger being the most notable) which serve pastrami burgers that have attracted national attention.
Real Salt Lake's stadium experience is excellent, but if you're on the hunt for entertainment preceding the match, hanging out with friendly locals is your only great option. The fan culture is robust, but you're not going to find bars and restaurants surrounding the stadium. The focus at Rio Tinto Stadium is very much on the match itself.
Frankly, it's better than you'd expect — even if there's the occasional piped-in music just before the match starts that drives visiting Timbers supporters crazy. (Honestly, at this point it's worth it, if just to feel the despair in their angsty tweets.)