SANDY — Building a deep team in MLS takes a lot of time, sometimes more time than organizations are willing to give.
Real Salt Lake prides itself on having a deep bench through the years, but judging by the results the past two weekends, this might be the deepest team yet.
That wasn't something many expected following an offseason in which it lost Andy Williams to retirement, Collen Warner to the expansion draft and Robbie Russell to a trade in the offseason. Incredibly though, coach Jason Kreis' team hasn't missed a beat in their absence.
Even without injured starters Will Johnson and Nat Borchers, and limited contributions from Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales, RSL is off to a 2-0 start with victories over the two biggest spenders in MLS.
The reason for the success is quite simple — depth. It's not the type of depth you build overnight either. In Real Salt Lake's possession-brand of soccer, it can take several years for players to eventually thrive, and that appears to be happening this year.
Paulo Jr., Chris Schuler and Luis Gil have all made major contributions early this season filling in for injured regulars Saborio, Borchers and Morales, and it's no coincidence either that this is their third year with Real Salt Lake.
They've been around long enough to know what is expected on both sides of the ball. They know the secret offensively is to constantly be moving the ball around the field with one- and two-touch soccer, and defensively they know they're expected to pressure the ball and stick together like a beehive.
Rookie Sebastian Velasquez has picked up on those requirements incredibly well so far, a big reason he became the first rookie to start an opener for Real Salt Lake since 2006.
As well as Paulo Jr., Schuler, Gil and Velasquez have played, it won't be long until RSL's four regulars are back to full strength.
"It brings up an interesting situation. Now we've got two wins in a row, and we've got some players coming back from injury who would usually expect to start. It will make for difficult choices for the coaching staff," said Kreis.
Two of RSL's biggest contributors so far know all about fighting for playing time. Tony Beltran and Ned Grabavoy were both part of a fluid rotation the past several years at their respective positions.
Grabavoy and Williams were routinely competing for a starting spot at outside midfielder, while Beltran was part of a three-man rotation at outside back along with Chris Wingert and Russell. With Williams and Russell no longer in the mix, the two have picked up the slack.
"(Ned) is really carrying the responsibility of not having somebody right behind him pushing him, he's carrying that very well," said Kreis.
As for Beltran, Kreis said, "(He) knows that this year we're going to need more."
Combined with solid performances from its healthy mainstays, Real Salt Lake is once again looking like one of the best teams in MLS.
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