MLS Season Preview: Real Salt Lake looks to prove 2015 was a fluke
2015 was a year of change for Real Salt Lake.
It also wasn’t a good year for the team. These two points are not unrelated.
In 2014, head coach Jeff Cassar, taking over for Jason Kreis, kept things largely the same. But in 2015, after another run to the postseason, Cassar drastically altered things, changing the formation from a 4-4-2 with a diamond to a 4-3-3 which was, in theory, better for supporting the team’s new personnel.
Theory was one thing. Reality was another. And the reality was harsh - RSL finished 11-15-8 with a -10 goal differential. Its run of eight straight seasons in the MLS playoffs came to an end.
How disruptive was the formation change?
“We went from something where our kit man could tell you where everybody on the field needed to be at a certain point, to where the guys on the field didn’t quite know where to be,” team captain Kyle Beckerman told Goal USA. “We didn’t know who we were and were trying to find ourselves. I think that was the biggest problem for us last year. We were just searching and searching for an identity again - and it took us quite a bit of time to get us an identity in the first place.”
Such issues were not unforeseen, Cassar said. But the problem was compounded by losing players, making it hard for the team to gel under the new system.
“We implemented a formation change and with that we knew automatically consistency becomes an issue,” Cassar told Goal USA. “After so many years doing it one way, we knew it was going to take a little bit of time. And then we had a lot of injuries to key players in key positions. We also had international call-ups with key players in key positions, followed by their backups being called in to the national team as well.
“So we were dealing with a lot of things and then you throw the formation change on top of it and it got to be a lot for myself, my staff and for the team.”
Cassar however, believes important lessons were learned.
“With that being said, I do think guys were able to gain a lot of valuable experience," he said. "We’ve been kicked now. It’s how we react this year after what we had to go through last year.”
The formation wasn’t the only change from last season as the team's makeup altered during the year and continued to change this winter. Luis Gil, who didn’t quite blossom into the player fans of RSL and the United States national team hoped, moved on in the offseason, as did Sebastian Saucedo and Sebastian Jaime. Aging veteran Alvaro Saborio was traded to D.C. United before the 2015 season ended.
Yura Movsisyan slots into the side, back for his second stint with the team. Chris Wingert also returns after a tough season with NYCFC. Omar Holness was added through the Superdraft, with Sunny Obayan providing another defensive option in the midfield. During the campaign, the team picked up Juan “Burrito” Martinez.
But the core remains. Beckerman, Rimando and Javier Morales, all now entering their 10th seasons with the team, will continue to make up RSL's spine, while Demar Phillips, Jamison Olave, Aaron Maund and Tony Beltran will again man the back four. Joao Plata and Martinez should flank Movsisyan.
All of this has the look of a veteran team that has been retooled, not rebuilt. And that suits Cassar fine - he’s optimistic last year’s disappointment will pave the way for a much more successful 2016.
“We planted the seeds of what we wanted to do last year and this season we’re going to reap the rewards of what we were trying to implement,” he said. “I think the guys feel more comfortable in this formation, more confident. Obviously, staying healthy is going to be a key, as it is with every team. But we’ve added depth to the team, we’ve added quality starters and I think each player is going to know what his role is more than last year.”
Cassar later added: “Last year was something we don’t want to repeat. Sometimes you have to go those years and experiences to make yourself better, to make the team more aware. This (preseason) so far has been good for us.”
REAL SALT LAKE SEASON PREVIEW
2015 Finish: Ninth in Western Conference (11-15-8), missed playoffs
Notable Additions: M Omar Holness, F Yura Movsisyan, M Sunny Obayan, D Chris Wingert, F Emery Welshman, M/D Danilo Acosta
Notable Losses: M Luis Gil, M Sebastian Saucedo, F Sebastian Jaime, D Chris Schuler, D Abdoulie Mansally, D Elías Vasquez, M Pecka, M Luis Silva
Top Newcomer: Yura Movsisyan. While Real Salt Lake’s defense was not as strong as it was normally last season, it was the offense that cratered in 2015. The team scored 38 goals, 16 fewer than 2014, 19 fewer than '13, and was the lowest since the it scored just 31 in '07. Enter Movsisyan, who returns to Real Salt Lake after departing following the 2009 campaign.
Movsisyan has been playing in the Russian Premier League, first with Krasnodar then with Spartak Moscow. While he’s only notched five league goals the past season and a half in 27 appearances, he scored 16 in 27 games in 2013-14 and at age 28, should still have plenty left in the tank to lead the line for the side.
“He brings a lot of the qualities we’re looking for,” Cassar said. “He’s a fierce competitor and he just wants to score goals, which he can score in a bunch of different ways. He can score with power, with his head, with his speed. He can give us outlets we didn’t have last year in that area.”
Player to Watch: Nick Rimando. Real Salt Lake has plenty of players who are central to its success this season - Movsisyan, Beckerman and Morales among others. But the 36-year-old Rimando remains an essential part of the side, and it’s not just because he is an excellent shot stopper. As a former keeper, Cassar is in a great position to see why Rimando is so valuable.
“There’s so many things Nick does well. His communication with the back line, his experience (in general), and his experience in big games like the Champions League and playoffs,” Cassar said. “He’s such a calming presence back there for our entire team and back line because of the confidence our players have in him, and also to pass it back to him and try play our high-possession style.”
Given Real Salt Lake struggled positionally last year and suffered injuries on the back line, having Rimando for more than 24 games in '15 certainly would have helped the side. Rimando’s continued success between the posts is going to be a big part of whether RSL’s dream of a bounce-back campaign is successful.
On one hand, it’s easy to fashion a scenario in which Real Salt Lake stays healthier than it did last season, its new additions spark the attack and fewer international call ups result in a sturdier defense. Of course, it’s just as easy to see a team with multiple key players on the wrong side of 30 struggling to stay fit, while the backups just can’t quite fill the shoes of the starters they’re replacing.
Which is it? While it may be hard to see RSL returning to a championship level contender, a more cohesive unit with a proven goalscorer with MLS experience in Movsisyan should be good enough to compete for, and quite possibly snag, a playoff spot.