I consider the subject of todays post to be an uncomfortable and unpleasant one, nonetheless one that has been on my mind most of this season.
It would seem that in the Utah sports market we become particularly attached to the players and staff of our sporting teams, more so than most other markets. We don’t like to see these individuals leave our organizations whether it by their choice or the teams choice.
We especially don’t like to see players and staff dealt unfairly with or done wrong by the organization. Perhaps this is all partially due to the deep seeded Christian root and strong family ties in Utah that engrain feelings of fairness, kindness and honesty into our state’s society.
Often times we see our sporting teams hang on to players and coaching staff for much longer than league averages, even when it can be a detriment to the organization, all in an effort to do “the right thing”.
Since the beginning of this MLS season we have heard the coaching staff and front office of Real Salt Lake mention numerous times that they made special effort to keep their core group of players together for a last ditch effort to obtain hardware in the US Open Cup, CONCACAF, Supporters Shield and MLS Cup. We have also heard them mention that failure to succeed in these goals will likely force the club to make many squad changes in pursuit of future success.
Real Salt Lake currently boasts the longest-tenured core of players in MLS history, with 10 players in either their 5th or 6th season with the club. Many of whom arrived in 2007, the same year coach Jason Kreis took the helm at RSL and Garth Lagerway arrived as General Manager of the club.
GK Nick Rimando, GK Kyle Reynish, MF Javier Morales, FW Fabian Espindola, DF Chris Wingert, and MF and current Captain Kyle Beckerman have all been with the club since 2007. The following year, DF Tony Beltran was drafted; DF Jamison Olave, DF Nat Borchers, and MF Will Johnson were also brought to the club from abroad. For many fans, this is Real Salt Lake; they don’t know (and perhaps don’t want to know) anything different.
While only one of the desired pieces of hardware is out of the Claret and Cobalt’s reach – the US Open Cup, having been eliminated from the competition in the first round at home against the Minnesota Stars – RSL’s recent form has placed some of the other trophies in jeopardy as well.
The race for the Supporters Shield is becoming increasingly more difficult for RSL to obtain. Having won their last MLS regular season match on July 27th, RSL has only claimed 1 point of the potential 12 available to them since. Real also lost 4 matches, dropping 12 points in June and July.
They were rather lucky to coast through the bulk of the last three months in first or second place in the Supporters Shield race due to early season success and getting an early lead on the table. However, that story is quickly changing weekly as the top of the table becomes more and more congested with each of our foe’s match results.
In the Western Conference, Real Salt Lake (43 points) is now tied with Seattle (who is winning on goal differential) for second place, 7 points behind San Jose (50 points), while LA (40 points) and Vancouver (37 points) are ever creeping closer. In the overall table RSL has now fallen to 4th place. Sporting KC (47 points) and New York (45 points) have now taken control of 2nd and 3rd places respectively. Houston (42 points), Chicago (41 points) and DC United (40 points) are closing in fast on RSL.
With the race growing ever closer towards the end of this season, the points that RSL has dropped in the past three months have become more and more critical.
Many critics are now saying that Real Salt Lake has lost its chance at the Supporters Shield. I don’t completely agree with that statement and mathematically it is still possible if RSL basically wins out the rest of the season, they have a chance at the Supporters Shield. It will however be very difficult for RSL to get their hands on that piece of hardware and if they don’t win the next few games it will pretty much be out of their reach.
I am not sure I remember an MLS season that has come down to the wire in terms of points and quality of the teams like this one is shaping up to do. The MLS is progressing as a league and becoming evermore competitive and difficult to succeed in.
It is a possibility that the Supports Shield at this point of the season is a lost cause for Real Salt Lake.
Despite the recent skid, RSL is likely to make it into the MLS playoffs in one of the higher Western Conference seeds. Due to the extensive playoff experience of the aforementioned tenured core of players, Real Salt Lake is very capable of navigating it’s way through the playoffs and on to the MLS Cup, as long as we can keep this core healthy. It is also very possible that these same players who claimed the MLS Cup for the Club in 2009, could do the same again this year. No one can count RSL out of the MLS Cup running, despite the ups and downs they have experienced.
In CONCACAF, RSL placed themselves into a difficult situation by losing their first road match to Herediano in Costa Rica and dropping the three potential points there. Claiming a win and three points against Tauro FC at home last week has helped put the club back on the right track in this tournament. Real needs the cards to stack right for them and needs to win their next two CONCACAF matches to advance out of this group stage of play. Once they are successful at that, they will need to be at their best, but are capable of returning to the CONCACAF final, which won’t take place until next year.
As long as Real Salt Lake advances out of the group stage and moves onto the knock out rounds, I wouldn’t expect to see many changes in the squad at the end of this MLS season as they will want to retain the same core of players to compete in CONCACAF Champions League play next spring.
However, what will happen if RSL is unable to score hardware in the way of the Supporters Shield or the MLS Cup and does not make it out of the group stage of the CONCACAF? Will we see our beloved RSL begin to make significant changes in their lineup?
What will happen with our aging core of players such as Nat Borchers, Nick Rimando, Chris Wingert, Kyle Beckerman and Alavaro Saborio, all of whom are over 30? I know 30 is not old, but it isn’t considered to be young for professional athletes.
What about those who have continually suffered with injury issues for the last year or more, such as Jamison Olave and Javier Morales, who are also over 30?
Is it possible that we will see wholesale changes in the lineup that most of us consider to be the preferred RSL starting 11 if they are not successful at obtaining hardware this year and into next with the CONCACAF?
While I am not sure wholesale changes are likely, I do think we will begin to see many changes that are uncomfortable for most of us.
What will happen with our old stalwarts?
At the end of last season we saw 2009 MLS Cup winning penalty kicker Robbie Russell move on to DC United on a trade deal. His deal was primarily due to his personal preference as his wife lived in DC.
Faced with the decision of how to not release RSL long timer Andy Williams, the club found a way to offer him an influential position in the front office and help him make the decision to hang up his boots but stay with the club. This is obviously an ideal way to retire a player and seen as a class move by the community as a whole.
However, it is unlikely that the club can do the same with our entire tenured core of players that will be reaching the apex of their careers on the pitch over the next couple of years. Others wont necessarily want to pursue such and offer in favor of other interests inside and outside the sport.
So what will happen to all of these guys we have grown to call part of our RSL Family in the next few years? Unfortunately it is very possible that many of them will move on from our RSL Family in favor of other clubs and interests.
For me and for the majority of the RSL Nation, it will be a sad day that we all dread. Unfortunately at some point changes in our squad will be reality.
Change, of course, is not all bad. In a soccer team, changes can bring fresh blood and fresh legs with new and different talent that can help the team evolve.
Real Salt Lake is currently developing a young core of players that could very well (and I will interject that I hope) be the future of the club for the next 5 – 8 years in players like Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez, Chris Schuler, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Lalo Fernandez, Enzo Martinez, Nico Muniz, Kenny Mansally, Emiliano Bonfigli and Tony Beltran.
Just like any other team, there will be seasons of success, seasons of rebuilding, and perhaps seasons of falling flat on our faces.
Whatever changes and challenges might be in store for our Real Salt Lake, one thing is sure, as we chant at RSL matches “I’m Salt Lake Till I Die”.
Real Salt Lake next faces DC United at home on September 1 at 7:00 PM. Be sure to get your tickets now for Saturday’s match.
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