Forty-eight days since its agonizing loss in MLS Cup, Real Salt Lake kicks off the 2014 preseason this Saturday in Casa Grande, Ariz., virtually unchanged from a year ago.
Well, on the field that is.
Of the 30 players on the preseason roster, 25 were with the team a year ago and are very familiar with the well-established RSL system. With salary space for probably only 28 players — and 27 under contract, according to general manager Garth Lagerwey — nearly 90 percent of RSL’s runner-up squad returns.
That’s certainly not the case in the coaching ranks. Jeff Cassar takes over as head coach after spending seven years as an RSL assistant, and he’ll be joined by four new assistant coaches.
The coaching dynamic — not rookies battling for the precious few roster spots — is a very intriguing storyline for RSL this preseason as it builds toward its season opener at Los Angeles on March 8.
With that in mind, Cassar has encouraged new assistant coaches Paul Dalglish, Craig Waibel, Daryl Shore and Andy Williams to approach the first of RSL’s three preseason stops with a more laid-back approach.
“I don’t want them to feel like they have to go in coaching right from Day 1. I want them to go in there and start to familiarize themselves with the players, and let the players start to build that trust level,” said Cassar. “It’s going to be a great time for everyone to get to know each other a little bit.”
In addition to working on fitness and defensive shape during RSL’s eight days in Casa Grande beginning Saturday, Cassar said it’s important the players enjoy themselves and play a lot of soccer too.
The second phase of the preseason — in Irvine, Calif., from Feb. 4-13 — will focus more on the attacking side, and Lagerwey said the third phase — in Tucson, Ariz., from Feb. 18-March 1 — will be all about integrating those phases together and playing meaningful games.
With what Lagerwey described as at least “two established players at every position on the field before camp even starts,” there’s no reason RSL shouldn’t begin 2014 in a similar place it ended 2013 — near the top of MLS.
Finishing at the top is the ultimate goal this season.
“We’ve had a number of pretty good seasons now, and we’ve been consistently competitive but we haven’t won trophies,” said Lagerwey. “You have to look at this year through the prism of, 'Can we win trophies?' I’m less worried on some level about the regular season.”
RSL will be a little short-handed during its eight days in Casa Grande with seven contributors from last year unavailable. Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Luis Gil are training with the U.S. national team in Brazil, while four others are still recovering from surgeries. Only Robbie Findley, however, likely won’t be ready for the opener. He had patella tendon surgery five days after MLS Cup and his timetable is for a late April/early May return.
Chris Schuler and Devon Sandoval are also working their way back from surgeries, but Lagerwey expects they’ll be ready before the opener. The same goes for defender Kwame-Watson Siriboe, who tore his ACL midway through 2013.
Lagerwey is hopeful that Schuler’s foot surgery will pay big dividends throughout the season.
“They cleaned up some of the things that we believe have caused some of the issues in the past. Hopefully if we’re patient with him, we can get a full season out of him,” said Lagerwey.
Had Schuler not missed four months last season, many believe Real Salt Lake would’ve won the Supporters' Shield. Cassar doesn’t want to put wins or points threshold expectations on his team heading into the season, but realistically he doesn’t need to — losing in the U.S. Open Cup final and the MLS Cup final are motivation enough.
“We do have a group of guys that have been close on several occasions, and I know they want to get back there and get back to that game and win it. I think the guys are coming back hungry and focused,” said Cassar.
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