Real Salt Lake: A veteran returning core plus an influx of young talent gives RSL high expectations
Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
SANDY — The last Real Salt Lake original has retired. The defender whose triumphant penalty kick celebration will forever be etched in fans' minds was traded to D.C. United.
Eight other players who contributed to RSL's successful 2011 campaign are gone as well.
Don't think for a second, however, that expectations for Real Salt Lake are any less in 2012 because of the departures. Quite the contrary. The core group the franchise identified four to five years ago is still in tact, and they expect to win trophies.
"Everybody's been around at least three years with this core group, moral victories don't work anymore," said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. "We made it to the final of CONCONCAF Champions League, we lost, we agonized about it for six months. It's gone. It's in the past. You either win or you don't win now. We kept this group together for one reason, to win, and to win titles."
Like the other 18 teams, MLS Cup is the priority, but unlike most teams, Real Salt Lake is a serious challenger to defending champion Los Angeles.
After that, advancing out of Champions League group play this fall is the next priority.
Surprisingly, Lagerwey said the Supporters' Shield is no longer a priority with the unbalanced MLS scheduled. He said "it's a nice sticker to put on the wall," but that's about it.
Success in the U.S. Open Cup this year would mean more to Real Salt Lake, because it would demonstrate progress from the team's plethora of young guys.
With the roster turnover, Real Salt Lake must rely on those youngsters more than ever to achieve success. With the departure of Andy Williams, Robbie Russell, Arturo Alvarez and Collen Warner, who combined to start 63 league matches last year, the team has a lot of minutes to fill this year.
Heading into the season opener this weekend with as many as four starters likely out as they recover from offseason surgeries, the need for the younger guys to contribute right away is a must. If they don't rise to the challenge right away, those mild Supporters' Shield aspirations could evaporate quickly.
"Our depth is young. We think it's more talented, we think it's more athletic, we think it has more long-term potential, but if we have to play a lot of young guys in the beginning of the season, we may struggle a little bit with that. ... If we're all patient, I think we're going to be OK," said Lagerwey.
Despite the injuries early on, goalkeeper Nick Rimando said it doesn't change his outlook.
"Our expectation is the same," said Rimando. "We had a lot of players out last year at the end of the year, and we still managed to get third in the league. If we get some guys back from injury, we stay a little more disciplined, we'll have the guys we want on the field and we're expected to do well in CONCACAF, Open Cup and the league."
Discipline could be a key. A year after not getting a single red card in league play in 2010, RSL had players ejected a staggering seven times in 2011.
"We talked about it with the players quite a few times, trying to get them to react positively and get them to react the right way in training sessions when things go wrong," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
It's ironic then that RSL picked up two red cards in the same preseason game a couple weeks ago. Kreis doesn't believe either of those ejections were deserved, but it's a process to get his players to understand they can't give the refs the "option of making a mistake."
This weekend's season opener at Los Angeles could be the first of 48 games this year for Real Salt Lake. With 34 regular-season games, four Champions League group games, up to four U.S. Open Cup games and as many as six playoff games, the potential is there for the busiest season in franchise history.
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