When Real Salt Lake didn’t score a goal in five straight games to end last season, it represented the end of the road for what soccer fans in Utah had grown accustomed.
With the salary cap walls closing in and no trophies the previous three years, the front office knew it was time to reassess the RSL core. General manager Garth Lagerwey believed the club had accomplished as much as possible with the core he’d began to assemble in 2008.
Don’t be mistaken. As Real Salt Lake kicks of the 2013 season this Sunday in San Jose, stalwarts like Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales are still the heart of the team. But by trading Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson this offseason for allocation money, Real Salt Lake freed up nearly a million dollars in salary cap to invest elsewhere.
Lagerwey believes he and coach Jason Kreis have meticulously and wisely put together a roster that will not only be competitive this year, but with an eye for trophies in the coming years.
“I think we’re very capable of making the playoffs this year, that’s certainly an expectation of ours,” said Lagerwey, whose team has made the playoffs all five seasons he’s been in charge. “But again, every plan has to start somewhere, and we’re at the part of the cycle we were at in 2009.”
One of the biggest things RSL wanted to improve this season was overall team speed, particularly up top. With the reacquisition of Robbie Findley along with the signings of Ecquadorian Joao Plata and Colombian Olmes Garcia, Lagerwey believes they’ve done that.
He doesn’t expect either one of the three to replace Espindola individually, but collectively he believes the team will have no problem doing so.
“We’re creating more space in midfield (this preseason) and specifically you saw more goals from midfielders. If you can get everybody on the same page and create that, then that’s how we’ll be successful,” said Lagerwey.
Between the three speedy forwards, not to mention the increased roles from improved Luis Gil and Sebastian Velazquez, Lagerwey is hopeful Real Salt Lake has assembled a team capable of scoring big goals.
For all the great things RSL accomplished the past three seasons — including recording a franchise-best 17 wins, 57 points and 46 goals in 2012 — scoring big goals hasn’t been one of them.
Four homes games in particular are black eyes on the franchise: the Dallas playoff game in 2010, the Monterrey final in 2011, the Herediano group game last year and the Seattle playoff ouster. In each of those games, RSL needed to score a goal to advance or win a title, yet never did.
“When you talk about going five games the end of the year without scoring, you need individuals. The team is the star is great 99 percent of the time, but when you get a ball on your foot in the last minute in front of the goal, someone has to take personal responsibility,” said Lagerwey.
Findley could be the answer. He scored big goals for RSL in the playoffs in 2009, including the MLS Cup. The 27-year-old struggled in Europe the past two years, but expect a chip on his shoulders this year as a result.
While trophies have been the goal in years past, patience might be the theme in 2013.
Don’t be mistaken, a sixth straight playoff appearance is the goal, but RSL might not look like a playoff team early — especially with injury woes early.
Javier Morales, Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert are all out this weekend against San Jose, and will likely all be out for at least another month.
In the season opener, Lagerwey said it doesn’t matter who’s on the field against the Earthquakes, the effort has to be better.
“Especially against San Jose, we’ve just got to go to war. They beat us what 9-3 in three games last year and kind of wiped the floor with us,” said Lagerwey.
RSL was shown a red card in both losses at San Jose last year, including a 5-0 loss on July 14. Lagerwey said it’s imperative the team shows more discipline throughout the year.
“Red cards are selfish. You’re putting yourself in front of the team. We can’t afford with this group to do things like take dumb red cards, take yellow cards for dissent,” said Lagerwey. “Our margin for error is diminished, but I absolutely believe we can be successful with the group we have, even in the early going.”
High expectations have followed RSL since winning the MLS Cup in 2009. This season though, there’s definitely a wait-and-see aura around the club after an offseason of change.