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Real Salt Lake has a lot to work on despite being a contender

Published: Friday, March 27 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Looking back on the 2008 MLS season, and more specifically Real Salt Lake's late-season push to the Western Conference final, it's easy to forget that RSL was a very, very average team a year ago.

It finished with a 10-10-10 record in the regular season with 40 goals scored and 39 surrendered, and followed it up with another so-so mark in the playoffs with a 1-1-1 record.

"That's mediocre, and we have to step forward from that, we've got to be better than .500," said Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis.

So what's necessary for RSL to improve upon that mediocrity? Just about everything must be better, but in advance of the club's 2009 season-opener at expansion Seattle on Saturday night, here's an in-depth look at five specific things that could make or break RSL's season.

1. Earn more points on the road

Of the 210 MLS regular-season road matches last season, the visiting team won just 47 times while earning draws in another 57. Not many of those road results can be attributed to Real Salt Lake which finished with a 2-9-4 away record.

There's a lot of hype heading into the 2009 season about RSL's prospects for a banner season, but it won't happen unless the club collects more away points. The two best teams in the East last year — Columbus and Chicago — each finished above .500 on the road, whereas Western Conference regular season champion was just a shade under .500 with a 3-4-8 record.

A victory on the road against an expansion team is the perfect opportunity to make a statement that 2009 is different.

"This is a tremendous test, and presents a tremendous opportunity. So many people are talking about Seattle right now and what a great showing they had last week, and it's a chance for us to say, 'Remember us, we didn't have a game last week.' It's a chance to really set the tone for this year with an away game," Kreis said.

Even though RSL's 10 road points last year was one point shy of tying for the league low, it did earn half those points in its final three games with a 1-0-2 record — and that doesn't include the playoff draw at Chivas USA.

2. Simply put, score more goals

Real Salt Lake led the league in shots and shots on goal last season, but eight other teams scored more goals. That's not good enough for a team many are projecting to be a Western Conference contender.

"The next step for this team is probably pretty clear to everybody, how clinical will we be in front of the net?" Kreis said.

The players are confident they'll score more than 40 goals in 2009, but there's still plenty of uncertainty. The team's four strikers are all a bit injury prone, all under 25 and many have proven to be streaky during their young careers.

No one is streakier than 21-year-old Yura Movsisyan, who led the team with seven goals last year.

"It's not about expectations, it's about belief," Kreis said. "We believe that Yura can be a consistent goal scorer, we believe he can improve, we think he already has this preseason. I think he's a better player right now. He's moving in the right direction. I think his potential is still limitless. He has got the tools to not only be a good forward in this league, but one of the best."

Even if Movsisyan reaches double digits in goals scored, he needs help from the often-inconsistent Robbie Findley, unproven Tino Nunez as well as newcomer Luis Miguel Escalada — who's still trying to earn a permanent spot on the team.

3. Win back-to-backgames already

As improved as Real Salt Lake was a year ago, it never won two games in a row, one of the few disappointments for Kreis last season.

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