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'Unfinished business' awaits when RSL opens camp

Published January 15, 2011 3:59 pm

Team's playoff meltdown after an incredible seasonhas only steeled its resolve.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dave Checketts has been around a lot of teams in his years as a sports executive.

But he swears that none of them — not the Knicks, not the Rangers, not the Jazz — took losing as hard as Real Salt Lake did when it was unexpectedly eliminated from the Major League Soccer playoffs in the first round barely two months ago.

"In all my time, I've never seen anybody even close," the team's majority owner said. "And as a result, I think what we're dealing with here is unfinished business."

The team will begin the journey toward finishing that business next week, when players report — yes, already — for the start of preseason training camp.

Armed with most of the same players but one less key assistant coach, RSL hopes to remain a top contender for both the Supporters Shield regular-season championship and the MLS Cup postseason title. It also aspires to become the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League, which would earn it a spot in the prestigious Club World Cup in Japan against some of the best teams in the world.

"Every resource we have as an organization is going toward trying to win this tournament in the spring," general manager Garth Lagerwey said recently. "It's that big."

While RSL ranks among the steadiest teams in the league and once again kept most of its core group of players together, it still had to endure an eventful offseason on its way to training camp.

Where to start?

Maybe with the players.

The team lost all-time leading scorer Robbie Findley and young defender David Horst in the expansion draft to stock the new Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers.

But it viewed that as a victory, considering it could have lost even more important players. Findley had already decided to leave and try his luck in Europe — he has signed with Nottingham Forest in England — while Horst didn't play for RSL at all last season while on loan to a minor-league team.

Better still, the team made a trade on the day of the expansion draft to acquire veteran winger Arturo Alvarez, a player whose talent led some analysts to already predict that RSL will win the league title.

"It's the best possible outcome you could imagine" from an expansion draft, Lagerwey said at the time.

The team also made what is becoming an annual effort at keeping its best players here and happy.

It made forward Alvaro Saborio a high-profile "designated player" — not all his salary is counted against the salary budget — by purchasing the lethal striker's contract after his loan from FC Sion in Switzerland expired, and signed young forward Paulo Araujo Jr. and midfielder Will Johnson to contract extensions that can keep them at RSL through the 2014 season.

The team is also working to sign goalkeeper Nick Rimando and defender Nat Borchers to contract extensions, and it traded away its first-round pick in the MLS SuperDraft on Thursday to obtain valuable "allocation money" that will help it afford all the new deals.

"We've remained committed to keeping together the core of our team," Lagerwey said, "with just some minor tinkering here or there."

The biggest change was arguably among the coaches.

Assistant coach Robin Fraser left after 3 1/2 years of helping his close friend, RSL head coach Jason Kreis, build RSL into a model franchise to become the head coach of Chivas USA. The team hasn't yet found a replacement — former defenders Carey Talley and C.J. Brown are reportedly among the candidates — and will be hard-pressed to land someone with the same pedigree and sparkling reputation as Fraser.

His loss could be felt most on the defensive end, though the change in team chemistry might also be affected.

The former all-star and national-team standout was largely responsible for developing Borchers and fellow central defender Jamison Olave into MLS Best XI stars, helping RSL set a league record last year by allowing just 20 goals in its 30 league games.

Without him? Who knows?

But certainly, RSL is at no loss for motivation in a season that will feature 18 teams and a balanced 34-game schedule in which every team will play every other, home and away.

The players remember too well, after all, what it felt like to sit in the locker room after losing to FC Dallas, knowing that their dream of repeating as MLS Cup champions was astonishingly finished after just two playoff games.

"They want another shot to go at it again, and that's what I wanted to give them," Checketts said. "We're building a team that's poised for long-term success and is going to be competitive for a long time. But most importantly, this now is about 2011 and unfinished business. We want to win CONCACAF and we want to go back and win the MLS Cup."

"We're stronger, we're better and we have 'Sabo' [Saborio] back," he added, "so let's see what they can do." —

Fresh start for RSL

• While players must report to RSL on Thursday, training camp officially opens Jan. 23 in Arizona.

• The team opens its league season at San Jose on March 19, with its first home game against the Los Angeles Galaxy on March 26. The full schedule has yet to be released.

• The first game of the year comes in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, when RSL plays at Columbus on Feb. 22 before a return leg at home March 1.

• Though a playoff draw at home ended its season, RSL is still riding a team-record 33-game unbeaten streak in all competitions at Rio Tinto Stadium.