SANDY — Over the past three seasons, no team in Major League Soccer has been more difficult to score against than Real Salt Lake — and it’s not really close.
RSL surrendered 91 goals from 2010 to 2012, and the next closest team is Los Angeles at 101, followed by Kansas City at 102. During that same stretch, Toronto gave up a league-worst 162 goals.
At the center of the success was Jamison Olave, the center back who earned two MLS All-Star selections, two MLS Best XI selections and an MLS Defender of the Year honor over the three-year stretch.
Olave was reluctantly traded to the New York Red Bulls this past offseason because of salary cap restrictions, and thus begins a new era defensively for Real Salt Lake.
“We’re not going to replace Olave," said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. "We have to replace him in the aggregate, and what I mean is we have to change the way we defend both in midfield and in defense in order to have a better shape as a team to compensate for the loss.”
With Olave, Real Salt Lake had the ultimate eraser, a defender whose speed and strength helped make up for mistakes around the field. Without him, “we have to defend a little more conservatively and a little more compactly to put our players in chances to succeed,” Lagerwey said.
Despite Olave’s departure, on paper RSL should be just fine along the backline this season — eventually.
Defensive regulars Nat Borchers (quadriceps) and Chris Wingert (foot) are both recovering from offseason surgeries and neither is expected back until April at the earliest.
With five of RSL’s first seven games on the road, including this Sunday’s season-opener at San Jose, Lagerwey expects an inevitable learning curve defensively.
The faces alongside defender Tony Beltran and goalkeeper Nick Rimando are familiar, but still somewhat unproven.
Real Salt Lake felt comfortable enough trading Olave, knowing Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe were waiting in the wings, but both still have plenty to prove. Schuler has struggled to stay healthy the past two years while Watson-Siriboe has a knack for making one disastrous mistake per game.
Schuler appeared in 13 games for RSL in 2012 while Watson-Siriboe made 12 appearances after being acquired from Chicago in a mid-season trade — a trade necessitated thanks in large part to a Schuler injury. The youngsters only started one game alongside each other last season, but they’re both likely to get the starting nod this weekend in San Jose.
Regardless of the result, Lagerwey said patience will be the key with RSL’s young defenders this season.
“You’re going to hear this over and over again, starting five of seven on the road, starting with some young guys together, they’re going to be better in May than they are in March and they’re going to be better in October than they will be in May,” Lagerwey said. “And we’re going to be patient. We believe in those kids. We believe they’re going to be good players and we’re going to stick with them.”
One of them will eventually take a backseat to Borchers when he returns. With that said, Borchers turns 32 in April, and injuries forced him to miss eight games last year.
Kenny Mansally will start opposite Beltran on the outside until Wingert returns, but that could be late April as Wingert recovers from a broken foot.
Beltran started more games than any other RSL player last year, 32, and his club desperately needs him to stay healthy and play well in the early goings of 2013. The defender received his first U.S. National Team call-up in January, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t build on that momentum early this season.
Anchoring the entire team is goalkeeper Rimando, and Lagerwey said he expects another fantastic season from the 13-year veteran.
“Nick has been the cornerstone of this franchise since I’ve been here,” Lagerwey said. “We know what he’s capable of. He’s on the fringe of the national team. I think you’re going to have a highly motivated player because, especially at his age, he wants to play in a World Cup and he wants to be involved in qualifiers.”
Lagerwey said that Rimando’s performance the last five games in 2012 might have been the best stretch of his career. Real Salt Lake didn’t score a single goal during those five games, but Rimando made some incredible saves to salvage four 0-0 draws — and the one goal he gave up was goal-of-the-year material.
Rimando will likely miss extended minutes this summer because of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which made the signing of back-up keeper Josh Saunders “a no-brainer,” according to Lagerwey. Saunders won two MLS Cups with the L.A. Galaxy, but was surprisingly waived in the offseason.
Real Salt Lake gave up the third-fewest goals in MLS in 2012, but duplicating that outstanding defense will be difficult with so many question marks.
Goals allowed in MLS between 2010-2012
Real Salt Lake (91)
Los Angeles (101)
Kansas City (102)
FC Dallas (114)
New York (119)
San Jose (121)
D.C. United (142)
Chivas USA (146)
New England (152)