Four months after the events of that Monday in December radically altered the look of Real Salt Lake, the team performing Saturday afternoon at Rio Tinto Stadium definitely needed an introduction.
Among the franchise’s traditions is having the public-address announcer deliver a starting player’s first name, and then the crowd responds with his last name. In the case of the 2013 home opener, it’s probably a good thing the answers were provided on the video board.
Otherwise, the likes of Lovel Palmer, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez might have stumped many of the 20,000-plus fans who witnessed RSL’s 1-1 tie with Colorado.
RSL still can claim to have never lost a home opener, with four wins and five ties. So judging this team by a first impression is risky, considering the initial result in Salt Lake City or Sandy has led to a season of anything between complete disaster and an MLS Cup championship.
What became obvious Saturday was how different this team looks, and how it will take a while for everything to come together. The return of veterans Nat Borchers and Javier Morales from injuries will provide some reassuring continuity. For now, nobody’s sure what to make of these guys.
It’s a new era for RSL, not completely by choice.
The team that defied Major League Soccer’s natural turnover for as long as possible during a five-year run of high-level consistency was forced into a makeover by the MLS salary cap. RSL’s response was to trade veteran players, explaining the absence of Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave and Will Johnson. They were dealt in December on "the day of reckoning" — general manager Garth Lagerwey’s description of a moment that RSL knew was coming.
Mix in Dell Loy Hansen’s replacing RSL founder Dave Checketts as the team’s majority owner in January, and you have a transition unlike anything in franchise history — at least since the overhaul of six years ago, beginning when Jason Kreis instantly went from playing to coaching in the middle of a season.
"It has been a difficult offseason, no doubt about it," Kreis said Saturday. "All that takes a toll."
The early returns are pretty much exactly what a 1-1-1 record suggests. If the home opener represented a fresh start, finishing remained the team’s biggest issue.
Team captain Kyle Beckerman was convinced his team dominated all 90 minutes of play, and RSL probably deserved a victory. Yet under the circumstances, Real’s earning a tie via Alvaro Saborio’s goal in the 80th minute seemed reasonable, right?
"Never, never, never," said Kreis, who steadfastly believes a win is the only acceptable result at home. "It was absolutely silent in our locker room. You’d have thought we lost three-nothing."
It might help if somebody other than Saborio could score. Besides the fiscal issues, RSL’s personnel changes were motivated by a quest for more goals — after failing to score in the last five games of 2012. Through three games, that payroll flexibility and new additions have led RSL back to the original offensive solution.
With three goals already, Saborio is positioned to have another big year. But he’ll need help from Robbie Findley, who’s back after spending two seasons in England. Among the newcomers, Joao Plata assisted on the tying goal and shows signs of working well with Saborio, while Velasquez is a hard-working player.
Kreis is staying patient. "We want to be our best at the end of the season," he said.
That’s not an unusual goal. But it would be a change from last year.
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