The excuses already are built in for Real Salt Lake, if it wants them.
Four of its top players are still recovering from offseason surgeries, and not getting any younger. Several others have their own injury questions. The team’s prized depth was torpedoed — replaced by a fleet of mostly inexperienced newcomers — and it’s facing another season jam-packed with not only Major League Soccer games but other competitions as well.
But general manager Garth Lagerwey doesn’t want to hear any of it.
To him, the only thing that matters this season is whether RSL can win the MLS Cup championship and return to the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League.
“If we achieve those, we succeed,” he said. “If we don’t, we fail. Very black and white this year.”
By that standard, RSL failed last season, finishing 15-11-7 in an injury-wracked regular season — a distant third-place tie in the MLS Western Conference — and losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the playoffs.
And it’s hard to argue that the team that will open the new season against the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center on Saturday night improved much in the offseason, at least on paper. RSL lost many of its most valuable reserves for a variety of reasons, while forward Alvaro Saborio, midfielders Javier Morales and Will Johnson and defender Nat Borchers all had surgery.
None of them is fully recovered yet, and none is expected to start against the Galaxy.
Of course, the team hopes all of the injured players will recover within a few weeks, and believes its reconstructed group of reserves is more athletic and talented than at any point in the past.
Besides that, the team has kept a core group of veteran starters together again, and Lagerwey believes it’s finally time to see some results.
“It’s our fourth year together,” he said. “We brought all these guys back, and a lot of these guys have been with us a long time. It’s great to play good soccer and it’s great to have people write nice articles about you. We don’t care. Doesn’t matter anymore. Doesn’t matter who’s hurt. Doesn’t matter who’s healthy. We gotta win.”
The only trophy RSL has won so far is the 2009 MLS Cup — still widely viewed around the league as a hot-at-the-right-time fluke.
Since that achievement truly did herald its arrival as a league contender, though, RSL ironically hasn’t won anything.
It nearly rallied to beat the Galaxy for the Supporters Shield regular-season title two years ago with a record-setting defense and the best offense in the league, but fell three points short. It dramatically reached the finals of the prestigious Champions League last season, only to lose to Mexico’s Monterrey at home, normally a fortress.
Both seasons, the team lost in the playoffs before it could reach the MLS Cup final again.
“Win a trophy,” defender Chris Wingert said. “That’s going to be our expectations, hopefully for a while. Ultimately, at the end of the season, if you don’t win a major trophy, it’s going to be a little bit of a disappointment.”
If a championship season is indeed on the horizon, it might not feature the most blazing of starts.
The team was 2-2-2 during the preseason, and as many as six regular starters could be out against the Galaxy, if defender Jamison Olave can’t shake a groin injury suffered in the final preseason game and Wingert isn’t suitably recovered from the savage gash above his eye he suffered in the same game.
Combined with all the new players, that could really delay the arrival of attractive soccer.
“We’d like to get off to a good start,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said, “but the main thing is to get our guys healthy.”
That’s especially true because the season is so long.
Not only will RSL play a 34-game league schedule — three games against each Western Conference rival, and one against every Eastern Conference team — but it will begin CONCACAF Champions League group stages again at the end of July and contest the annual U.S. Open Cup in the middle of it all.
Winning early isn’t as important as winning more, as the season drags on.
“A fair expectation for this team at this point is that they go and battle every week,” coach Jason Kreis told reporters. “We’re going to try to keep our guys focused on all the small details, and not the results. We’re going to let people like you worry about the results.”
And if they come, as the team hopes?
This is the first season the league will hold the MLS Cup at the site of the highest-ranked finalist, meaning it’s possible for RSL to win a championship on its home field at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Looks like the potential rewards are built in for RSL, too.
7 • Fabian Espindola
12 • Emiliano Bonfigli*
15 • Alvaro Saborio
23 • Paulo, Jr.
27 • Cody Arnoux
5• Kyle Beckerman
8 • Will Johnson
11 • Javier Morales
14 • Yordany Alvarez
16 • Nico Muniz*
19 • Enzo Martinez*
20 • Ned Grabavoy
21 • Luis Gil
22 • Jonny Steele*
26 • Sebastian Velasquez*
2 • Tony Beltran
3 • Diogo de Almeida*
4 • Jamison Olave
6 • Nat Borchers
17 • Chris Wingert
28 • Chris Schuler
44 • Leone Cruz*
53 • Terukazu Tanaka*
1 • Lalo Fernandez*
18 • Nick Rimando
24 • Kyle Reynish
M Andy Williams •retired
M Collen Warner • lost to Montreal in expansion draft
D Robbie Russell •traded to D.C. United
M Jean Alexandre •traded to San Jose
D Nelson Gonzalez •released
M Arturo Alvarez •released
F Chris Agorsor •released
F Donny Toia • released
D Blake Wagner •released
GK Tim Melia • released
Odds of winning the MLS Cup
L.A. Galaxy 2/1
Seattle Sounders 5/1
Real Salt Lake 7/1
Sporting K.C. 8/1
FC Dallas 8/1
N.Y. Red Bulls 12/1
Colorado Rapids 12/1
Houston Dynamo 12/1
Philadelphia Union 18/1
Columbus Crew 18/1
Chicago Fire 25/1
Portland Timbers 25/1
N.E. Revolution 33/1
S. Jose Earthquakes 33/1
DC United 33/1
Chivas USA 40/1
Toronto FC 40/1
Van. Whitecaps 66/1
Montreal Impact 66/1
Source • Bovada.lv
March 10 - at Los Angeles, 8:30 p.m.
March 17 - New York, 8 p.m.
March 24 - Chivas USA, 7 p.m.
March 31 - at Portland, 8 p.m.
April 4 - Montreal, 7 p.m.
April 7 - Colorado, 7 p.m.
April 14 - at Sporting KC, 6:30 p.m.
April 21 - at San Jose, 8:30 p.m.
April 25 - at FC Dallas, 6:30 p.m.
April 28 - Toronto FC, 7 p.m.
May 5 - New England, 7 p.m.
May 9 - at Chicago, 6:30 p.m.
May 12 - at Seattle, 8 p.m.
May 26 - FC Dallas, 7 p.m.
June 16 - at Chivas USA, 8:30 p.m.
June 20 - Los Angeles, 7 p.m.
June 23 - San Jose, 7 p.m.
June 30 - at Columbus, 6 p.m.
July 4 - Seattle, 8 p.m.
July 7 - Portland, 7 p.m.
July 14 - at San Jose, 8:30 p.m.
July 21 - Colorado, 8 p.m.
July 27 - Vancouver, 7 p.m.
Aug. 4 - at Colorado, 7 p.m.
Aug. 11 - at Vancouver, 5 p.m.
Aug. 18 - FC Dallas, 7 p.m.
Aug. 24 - at Philadelphia, 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 1 - D.C. United, 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 - at Houston, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 22 - Portland, 6 p.m.
Sept. 29 - at Chivas USA, 8:30 p.m.
Oct. 6 - at Los Angeles, 7 p.m.
Oct. 17 - at Seattle, 9 p.m.
Oct. 27 - Vancouver, 7 p.m.
* All Times Mountain