It seemed unnatural the first time he saw them wearing someone else’s jersey.
Those two weeks of preseason training in Arizona this year “did feel very weird and awkward,” Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis acknowledges.
But after more than half a season since RSL traded away a trio of all-star caliber players, Kreis and his team have had time to move on, and it will be business as usual when first-place Salt Lake sees Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola wearing the New York Red Bulls jersey this weekend in New Jersey.
“We’ve been going at it long enough, I think they look pretty comfortable where they are,” Kreis said, “and I don’t think of them as our players anymore.”
The two players will forever be tied to Real Salt Lake, having helped the team go from one of the league’s worst sides to lifting the MLS Cup in 2009. Espindola’s speed, creativity and left foot helped him score 35 goals in 125 matches for RSL. Olave, meanwhile, was one of the league’s most imposing defenders while playing for Salt Lake from 2008 through 2012.
But when RSL was knocked out of CONCACAF Champions League and later failed to advance in the MLS playoffs last year, thus missing out on allocation money from the league, the team’s front office was forced to make cuts to its ballooning payroll.
The team sold midfielder Will Johnson to Portland and Olave and Espindola to New York. It was an offseason RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey has described as “painful” — and a pain that has motivated the club to succeed in order to avoid a similar situation in the future.
“We were very close to those guys,” defender Nat Borchers said.
But the moves have seemingly worked out for all involved. RSL has earned 37 points through 21 games this year and sits atop the MLS table. A retooled roster has scored 33 goals (compared with 34 this time a year ago) and has clamped down defensively, allowing just 20 goals (compared to 26 through 21 games last season).
Olave and Espindola have settled in with New York. Both players have featured prominently for the Red Bulls this season, and both have found the back of the net four times. Meanwhile, former RSL midfielder Jonny Steele, who was not re-signed by Salt Lake this offseason, has scored twice and notched three assists for New York while featuring in 20 of the team’s 21 matches.
“They are friends,” said RSL midfielder Javier Morales, who keeps in touch with Olave and Espindola. “I spend with them, like, four years playing for Real Salt Lake. So when that kind of guy leaves the team … it’s going to be hard to let them go, but that is soccer.”
“They’re a part of the history,” RSL’s Ned Grabavoy added, “a big part of the history of this club.”
But they are no longer a part of Real’s future.
RSL at New York
O Saturday, 5 p.m.
TV • Ch. 4