Looking back on the 2008 MLS season, and more specifically Real Salt Lake's late-season push to the Western Conference final, it's easy to forget that RSL was a very, very average team a year ago.
It finished with a 10-10-10 record in the regular season with 40 goals scored and 39 surrendered, and followed it up with another so-so mark in the playoffs with a 1-1-1 record.
"That's mediocre, and we have to step forward from that, we've got to be better than .500," said Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis.
So what's necessary for RSL to improve upon that mediocrity? Just about everything must be better, but in advance of the club's 2009 season-opener at expansion Seattle on Saturday night, here's an in-depth look at five specific things that could make or break RSL's season.
1. Earn more points on the road
Of the 210 MLS regular-season road matches last season, the visiting team won just 47 times while earning draws in another 57. Not many of those road results can be attributed to Real Salt Lake which finished with a 2-9-4 away record.
There's a lot of hype heading into the 2009 season about RSL's prospects for a banner season, but it won't happen unless the club collects more away points. The two best teams in the East last year — Columbus and Chicago — each finished above .500 on the road, whereas Western Conference regular season champion was just a shade under .500 with a 3-4-8 record.
A victory on the road against an expansion team is the perfect opportunity to make a statement that 2009 is different.
"This is a tremendous test, and presents a tremendous opportunity. So many people are talking about Seattle right now and what a great showing they had last week, and it's a chance for us to say, 'Remember us, we didn't have a game last week.' It's a chance to really set the tone for this year with an away game," Kreis said.
Even though RSL's 10 road points last year was one point shy of tying for the league low, it did earn half those points in its final three games with a 1-0-2 record — and that doesn't include the playoff draw at Chivas USA.
2. Simply put, score more goals
Real Salt Lake led the league in shots and shots on goal last season, but eight other teams scored more goals. That's not good enough for a team many are projecting to be a Western Conference contender.
"The next step for this team is probably pretty clear to everybody, how clinical will we be in front of the net?" Kreis said.
The players are confident they'll score more than 40 goals in 2009, but there's still plenty of uncertainty. The team's four strikers are all a bit injury prone, all under 25 and many have proven to be streaky during their young careers.
No one is streakier than 21-year-old Yura Movsisyan, who led the team with seven goals last year.
"It's not about expectations, it's about belief," Kreis said. "We believe that Yura can be a consistent goal scorer, we believe he can improve, we think he already has this preseason. I think he's a better player right now. He's moving in the right direction. I think his potential is still limitless. He has got the tools to not only be a good forward in this league, but one of the best."
Even if Movsisyan reaches double digits in goals scored, he needs help from the often-inconsistent Robbie Findley, unproven Tino Nunez as well as newcomer Luis Miguel Escalada — who's still trying to earn a permanent spot on the team.
3. Win back-to-backgames already
As improved as Real Salt Lake was a year ago, it never won two games in a row, one of the few disappointments for Kreis last season.
In the 10 games following its wins, RSL settled for an 0-4-6 record, including three scoreless draws. Interestingly enough, of those 10 opportunities to win back-to-back games nine occurred on the road.
Until Real Salt Lake puts together a few multi-game winning streaks teams won't fear playing RSL. Defender Nat Borchers is confident things will be different this year.
"There's more pressure this year as far as the expectations, but at the same time I think it's deserved. I think we proved last year we can play good soccer and we can be a very good team in this league, and I think we should expect that from ourselves and fans should expect that from us," he said.
4. Make Rio Tinto Stadium a fortress
There's no disputing that Rice-Eccles Stadium was one of the least desirable stadiums for visiting teams in MLS. Not only was the altitude an issue, but the rock-hard turf was brutal on your body and made playing quality soccer very difficult.
Real Salt Lake capitalized on that home-field advantage in 2008 losing just once at the U. to finish with a 7-1-5 record before moving into Rio Tinto Stadium late in the season.
Many of the nuances that made its former home such a disadvantage for the opposition are gone. RSL's new stadium and pitch immaculate, a place every visiting team will look forward to playing. The difference according to defender Nat Borchers, might ultimately be the support in the stands.
"It's going to be huge to see the fans come out this year, and how well we are supported this year. I think the opening game for us Thursday night is really going to be a tale-tell sign of how much of a home-field advantage it is, because last year it was awesome," Borchers said.
Houston was the only other team that only lost once at home last season, but it is a largely deceiving stat considering the six draws at home were second only to Toronto's seven.
5. Capitalize on continuity with earlypoints
Never before has Real Salt Lake returned so many starters from the year before. In fact, of the projected 11 starters who will take the field this Saturday at Seattle, nine were in the starting lineup during the Western Conference final loss to New York.
Maintaining that core group and establishing continuity from year to year is a basic philosophy of RSL. There's no reason it shouldn't provide immediate benefits.
"I don't think this team has ever got off to a good start," Kreis said. "You look at some of the teams that coast into the playoffs and you're jealous of them, and that's because they've done well at the beginning of the season, and that's what we're after. We need to collect our points early and often."
RSL should have a much smaller learning curve than most of the other 14 teams in MLS. All 11 of its projected starters played together at one point last season, and Borchers said that establishes trust. He stressed that when you've gone into battle with your teammates in the past and been successful, it makes duplicating those feats again seem easier.
"It gives us consistency to build on and a better understanding of what we can do, so I think we're hoping that's going to transpire on the field with results earlier in the season versus last year where we struggled early on in the season," Borchers said.
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