The most stable team in Major League Soccer history could not stay together forever, and everybody knew it.
Even with that understanding, the news came as a shock to Real Salt Lake followers Monday: FabiÃ¡n EspÃndola, JÃ¡mison Olave and Will Johnson were being traded. Those three were part of a remarkable run here a five-year stretch of annual playoff appearances that included an MLS Cup title, two other conference finals berths and a bunch of regular-season victories.
And then they traded were for â¦ who, exactly? Well, nobody at the moment. That's the amorphous part of these transactions, with RSL clearing salary cap space and gaining allocation money that supposedly will translate into a couple of players who can kick the ball into the net.
Conveniently, RSL now can and must pursue some scorers. Failing to produce a goal in any of the last five games of 2012 "sent a message to us," said RSL president Bill Manning.
There really was no other choice. If this team could have advanced from group play in the CONCACAF Champions League in October, the MLS structure would have given the organization more salary flexibility. So because Real could not score against C.S. Herediano at home, moving those three players (or somebody else) became mandatory.
In turn, Manning told general manager Garth Lagerwey, "You're under a lot of pressure" to deliver the players who can rewrite that story. The word of the day around team headquarters was "firepower," in response to the weak offensive production of October and November and a series of other big games over the past three seasons.
This could work. If the likes of Luis Gil, Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe are ready for bigger roles, the defense and midfield will remain solid. And then if Javier Morales re-signs with the club and Lagerwey lands another scorer or two, EspÃndola won't be missed.
And it's not as if RSL is completely blowing up this thing. You may recognize the names of Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, Nat Borchers and Alvario Saborio. They're still here.
Sure, this feels like the end of an era in a lot of ways. Lagerwey, Manning and coach Jason Kreis overhauled the roster and then maintained it to a degree that basically defied the MLS model that encourages personnel turnover in the interest of parity. Success meant salary increases, though, which eventually meant that this team as we knew it would price itself out of the game.
Ultimately, that's what this "day of reckoning," as Lagerwey described it, is all about reworking a chunk of the roster, out of necessity, and trying to improve the product. The big picture still looks good for RSL, even if it's temporarily distorted.
Manning acknowledged the changes are "drastic moves" that came after "a lot of disagreement" among team officials initially. But those conversations were strictly about which players would go, because something had to be done.
"We don't want to be an organization that stands still," Manning said. Then again, what else could RSL do? Payroll had to be slashed somehow.
Espindola, Olave and Johnson contributed significantly to RSL's becoming established in this market, regularly filling Rio Tinto Stadium and giving the franchise credibility in the league.
This team was kept together to make one more run, but it just could not finish sufficiently to deliver any trophies lately. After Monday's moves, that becomes the challenge to the yet-unknown new guys to score some goals that really matter.