SALT LAKE CITY — Second chances don't always come around, but that's what central defender Leone Cruz has this preseason with Real Salt Lake.
A second-round draft pick a year ago with Seattle, Cruz underachieved in the preseason and was cut by the Sounders before the 2011 season started.
No other MLS team or lower division team came calling, and Cruz spent the rest of 2011 without a team. He tried to keep himself fit and play in as many random games as possible. That included playing in a few Reserve League games for Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas as a guest player last year.
"It was very character building throughout that year," said Cruz, who spent five years at SMU including his 2007 redshirt year. "But regardless of it all you're a professional and take it as a professional and you have to take those challenges and use them as a positive to help you get better and help you grow as a person and a player."
That attitude helped him make a very good impression on Real Salt Lake's coaching staff during his two appearances as an RSL guest player.
When Real Salt Lake decided to part ways with Rauwshan McKenzie this offseason, it did so with the hopes that Cruz might be able to fill that void as the fourth center back on the depth chart. Cruz, however, wasn't a free agent.
Seattle still owned his rights, and wanted something in return. UCLA midfielder Andy Rose is what the Sounders wanted, and RSL obliged by snatching him up with the sixth pick in the MLS Supplemental Draft earlier this month. With 38 players taken in the SuperDraft the week prior, Rose became the 44th rookie drafted.
Considering its historically poor track record with third-round picks, RSL had no problem dealing Rose for Cruz. Now it's up to Cruz to try and earn the job, something he couldn't do with Seattle the year earlier.
"Is he a proven player? Absolutely not," said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. "But in the third round, we've only had one third-round pick ever make our team, (Chris Schuler). Picking 44th overall, you're deep enough in the draft you're taking guys you hope make our team."
Even though Cruz is essentially a rookie, he has more experience than a typical rookie.
"He has the benefit of having played with our group, not once but twice, and trained with us a number of times. I would say he has a better chance than a normal third round pick of making our team," said Lagerwey.
With 32 players in camp this preseason, and a projected roster size of 26 players, Real Salt Lake will likely release players in two waves. The first will come at the end of its first Arizona camp (Jan. 31-Feb. 4) and the next will occur after its second Arizona camp (Feb. 20-March 4).
Cruz is hopeful he's in a better spot to survive the cuts this time around. His nutrition and conditioning is much better than it was a year ago, and having gone through Seattle's preseason last year, he knows what's expected of him.
"I'm just excited to be part of the team to be back in and competing, to do anything and everything I can for the teammates, for the coaches and for the entire organization," said Cruz.
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