It was championship or bust, and the latter won out.
So after playing last year with a bloated payroll buoyed by years of allocation money from Major League Soccer, Real Salt Lake is rebooting.
Opening daySunday, March 3
RSL at San Jose Earthquakes
8 p.m. MST
TV » CW30
Radio » ESPN 700
» RSL’s average age: 24.9 years old
» Scored a team-best 46 goals last year, but went scoreless over its last five matches.
» Finished second in the West with 57 points.
Three seasons have come and gone since RSL hoisted the MLS Cup, and the team’s front office is making an effort to get back to 2009. After starting the offseason by selling off starters Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson for cash, the talk around Rio Tinto Stadium was of adding firepower and winning trophies.
Some patience will likely be required.
"We’re looking at this as a multiyear plan," general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "Can we make another long-term run where we can be competitive over the next three or four years? We do look at this like an RSL 2.0."
Salt Lake poured in a team-best 46 goals last year, but went scoreless over five crucial games to close out the season. To rectify this, the front office traded for former Toronto FC forward Joao Plata and brought back Robbie Findley, the speedster who helped RSL to the cup once before.
RSL also brought in Colombian forward Olmes Garcia.
In some ways, no player is more representative of RSL’s plan than Garcia. He is young (20) and fast and signed long-term. And though he scored seven goals in 36 starts over the last two years for Deportes Quindio in Colombia, he is still raw and will take some time before he can make a true impact.
"We’re not looking for a quick fix," Lagerwey said. "We’re looking for a long-term solution."
The front office believed it had gone as far as it could with the squad it had fielded over the last three season, but there is still a core that remains. Around the RSL camp there is a mix of new and old.
"We still have a lot of familiar faces, guys who have been here quite a while," captain Kyle Beckerman said.
At the same time, Salt Lake has quietly become one of the league’s youngest teams. Beckerman, a holdover from the 2009 championship team, is one of just six RSL players in their 30s. Right back Tony Beltran, fresh off his first national team call-up, is 25. Midfielder Luis Gil, entering his fourth season with the club, is just 19. Plata is 20; midfielder Sebastian Velasquez is 22. RSL’s likely starters at center back on opening day, Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, are both in their mid-20s.
The influx of youth and new players has meant coach Jason Kreis and his staff have had to do more teaching this offseason than in years past. He stops training sessions more often to make points, talks tactics with new players and spends more time watching video.
But if it is a boon for the future, it will come at some cost to the present.
RSL finished last year second in the West with a franchise-record 57 points. Salt Lake jumped out to a 10-3-2 record over its first 15 matches of the year.
"Odds are we aren’t going to jump out to the starts we’ve had in the past," Kreis said. "We have to take a little bit more of a long-term view of that."
Playing five of its first seven games away from Rio Tinto Stadium won’t help that. But if RSL can hover around .500 heading into a significant home stretch beginning in late May, the team should be on course for yet another playoff berth.
"The expectation is to make the playoffs," Lagerwey said. "When you’re in the playoffs, any team has a chance to win the title."
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