As Real Salt Lake’s season came to a close in disappointing fashion last year, I wondered if it would be their last serious run at a championship for a while.
Changes were coming to the lineup. RSL didn’t make it to the Champion’s League, costing the club a substantial amount of revenue and dramatically hurting the organization's bottom line.
I was shocked when trade rumors started floating around. Three of the most valuable pieces of Real’s starting 11 were mentioned heavily. I thought there was no way that general manager Garth Lagerway would move that many crucial players in such short order. A little less than 48 hours after I heard the rumors, Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave were gone.
As a season ticket holder, I was less than thrilled. I was already locked into my tickets for the 2013 season, and I wasn’t looking forward to the changes. As more and more players were not re-signed, my wife and I thought about trying to get a refund for our tickets.
How in the world would Real Salt Lake replace so many players in one offseason? I thought RSL was in serious trouble, especially because most of the new players acquired were brought in for next to nothing. If the ball bounced right for the Claret and Cobalt, they might be able to fight for the last playoff spot, but nothing more.
Khari Stephenson was released by San Jose and not taken in either round of the re-entry draft. Joao Plata was traded for a second-round pick in 2015. Devon Sandoval was the 29th pick in the second round of the 2013 MLS Super Draft. Lovel Palmer was a stage two pick in the re-entry draft after the Portland Timbers declined his option. Josh Saunders was a camp invitee after his contract ended with the L.A. Galaxy. Olmes Garcia was purchased from Quindío of the Colombian First Division. Carlos Salcedo was already in the organization as a member of the RSL-Arizona Academy. This group of (what appeared to be ragtag) newcomers didn’t seem to be anything but the start of a long rebuilding process.
I was dead wrong. I should have believed in Lagerway's skill as a talent evaluator and Jason Kreis' coaching. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that after the first half of the 2013 schedule, RSL would be atop the table in the Western Conference.
Everything has fallen into place. After a slow start, RSL has been on a fantastic run, winning seven of its last nine MLS matches. As for the newcomers, Lagerwey appears to have found more than a few young stars in the making. Of course, that is the result of the moves Kreis makes to put each player in the perfect spot to succeed. Stephenson has been great in the midfield while Sandoval, Garcia, Plata and Findley have taken their turns making things happen up top. As for Salcedo and Palmer, they have been solid on the back line.
Saunders has been the consummate professional. It’s always nice to know that RSL has a capable backup keeper if anything ever happens to Nick Rimando. Real Salt Lake didn’t have that last year. Kyle Reynish looked like a deer in headlights when he stepped on the pitch, and that worried me to no end.
While fans still miss the hustle of Will Johnson, the antics of Fabian Espindola and chanting “Olave says no” whenever Jamison made a great defensive play, they can rest assured that the future is very bright.