SALT LAKE CITY — Meeting his Real Salt Lake teammates for the first time on Thursday morning, rookie midfielder Sebastian Velasquez was a bit star struck.
"I walked in, and I was like oh man, there's Beckerman, there's Morales, there's Fabian. I've played with these guys on FIFA, and now I'm training on the same field with them," said the 20-year-old Velasquez.
From a different perspective, Kyle Beckerman was just as excited to see Velasquez along with the other eight new faces as RSL kicked off the 2012 preseason with fitness testing in the Spence Eccles Field House at the University of Utah.
"We need that breath of fresh air, to give us a jolt. I'm excited for it," said Beckerman.
It was a sentiment that veteran midfielder Will Johnson, who's still just 25, echoed.
"It will be an interesting change, but I think it's good. You need young guys coming in and pushing older guys for spots. You need some fresh blood, some guys competing in practice for playing time. I think you'll see it's a positive thing to bring in new faces," said Johnson.
Unlike the past couple years when playing time was often hard to come by for RSL's youngsters, thanks to an offseason that saw the departure of nine players, the newcomers will need to make much more meaningful contributions in 2012.
There's an immediate need for an outside back after Robbie Russell, who played 1,809 minutes in the regular season last year, was traded to D.C. United.
In the midfield, RSL needs to replace the production of Andy Williams, Collen Warner and Arturo Alvarez, players who combined for 3,800 minutes later year.
Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis believes he and his staff have identified quality replacement options, and they'll find if they were right over the next six weeks as RSL builds toward its season opener at the L.A. Galaxy on March 10.
"I do think coming out of this year's draft and with some of the guys that we'll call trialists, we feel like we have a stronger group from the bottom up than we have had in years past, and we're certainly going to need it no doubt about it. But there's a lot of assessment that needs to happen over the next couple weeks to see whether we're right," said Kreis.
RSL will train in Utah over the next three days before heading to Arizona on Tuesday for two weeks of training. The newcomers will have plenty opportunities to prove themselves as many of RSL's regulars are dealing with injuries, several of which will carry over into the season.
Nat Borchers and Alvaro Saborio are still working their way back from offseason surgeries, and Kreis said he doesn't expect either to be ready for the season opener.
Morales is still a week away from being cleared by doctors following offseason surgery to remove a bone spur from his Achilles. Beckerman and Johnson are nursing injuries of their own, and neither will be ready for full training for at least two more weeks.
"You never want to start up a season with five or six guys having to rest, but I also know it's an extremely long season and it's an extremely long preseason," said Kreis.
With as many as 50 games on tap this year, finding depth at outside back to fill Russell's void is one of the biggest tasks this preseason.
Kreis said that Terukazu Tanaka, Diogo de Almeida, Wes Knight and Samir Bengelloun are competing for two roster spots, and he's optimistic two will emerge to fill RSL's needs.
As for midfielder replacements, first-round draft pick Enzo Martinez will certainly make some contributions. However, the Uruguayan native won't join the team until next week in Arizona as he finalizes his immigration status.
More realistically, RSL will look in-house to fill some of the midfield voids. Luis Gil, 18, played 1,288 minutes last year as the team dealt with injuries and national team call-ups. He was very good at times, and there's reason to believe he can take the next step and make bigger contributions.
"I want him to take a step forward, but does that mean I'm going to put pressure on him to take that step? No I'm not. But I want him to, and we're going to do our absolute best to try and get him to. It would be great if he does 'cause we do need contributions from somebody like Luis Gil this year," said Kreis.
Yordany Alvarez, who was on loan from lower division Orlando City the final two months last season, is back in 2012 after RSL purchased his contract. He's a defensive midfielder, and someone Kreis said is the most qualified person to back up Beckerman RSL has ever had. With Beckerman expected to be gone quite a bit with the U.S. National Team this season, signing Alvarez permanently is very significant.
Despite so many new players expected to make contributions this year, Johnson said the expectations won't be any different in 2012.
"Expectations are always the same, we have a heck of a lot of good players here. We want to compete for a championship, we want to compete in the Champions League again. Anything less than being an elite team in this league would be a bitter, bitter disappointment," he said.
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