Soccer: Real Salt Lake's young players grow up fast
When the Real Salt Lake front office took the seemingly drastic measure of selling off a trio of players with All-Star caliber to deal with the team's bloated payroll this offseason, general manager Garth Lagerwey was careful to call it a retooling, not a rebuilding for a franchise that had become accustomed to success.
Nevertheless, there would undoubtedly be growing pains.
It would take time for young players to find their way in the system, Lagerwey said.
Fans probably shouldn't expect the blistering starts to which they'd become accustomed, coach Jason Kreis said before the season started.
But four months into what team executives called a three- or four-year plan for RSL, things aren't going exactly as planned.
"I think we're a little ahead of schedule," Lagerwey admits.
With 18 games on the books, Real Salt Lake sits alone at the top of the Major League Soccer standings, three points clear of Western Conference foes Dallas and Portland. The team that struggled to score in its final five matches of 2012 has found the back of the net 27 times second most in the league and has done it largely with last season's top scorer, Alvaro Saborio, either hurt or with Costa Rica.
In trading Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave, RSL planned to free up the cap space to be younger, faster and deeper than ever before.
The team would still retain its core, a handful of veterans who still remember how it felt to hoist the 2009 MLS Cup. That core has provided continuity even amid change.
Nick Rimando and Nat Borchers each provided late-game heroics to preserve a win Saturday in Toronto. Midfielder Ned Grabavoy broke a lengthy personal scoring drought and has been heavily involved in the team's renewed attack. Kyle Beckerman has controlled the midfield and provided game-winners himself.
And Javier Morales is healthy and making the team's offense work.
"I think the foundation has been there," Beckerman said after a win over Seattle last month. "We just continue to try to build off that foundation. Whether you bring in new players, young players, old players, guys see what we've done the past couple years and they want to buy into what we've got going on."
But the emergence of the team's youth movement has surprised many.
"You don't know how quick new players and young players are going to come along," Grabavoy said. "I think they probably came along faster than most of the older guys and coaching staff thought."
Kreis, who hasn't had young forwards to mold since Yura Movsisyan and Robbie Findley in his first stint in Salt Lake, asked Lagerwey for new projects to help shape the team's attack.
"I think this is the best coaching job that our staff has had," Lagerwey said.
Kreis persuaded Lagerwey to move up in the second round of this year's draft to take Devon Sandoval, who has turned into a workhorse target man in his rookie season. Joao Plata, 21, was brought in from Toronto and has proved himself a spark plug.
And Colombian Olmes Garcia, still just 20, is one of the league's brightest young stars, showing off a rare combination of physical attributes and skill with the ball.
Defensively, RSL has seen important performances from 19-year-old center back Carlos Salcedo, who could fill that role for the rest of the season if Chris Schuler's foot injury is serious.
"You hope you're right on most of them," Lagerwey said. "But when you look at as many as seven young player succeeding from the group, from that standpoint, it's been exceptional."
But as RSL looks down at the rest of the league from the top of the table, Lagerwey understands the difficult stretch that lies ahead for the club. Of RSL's final 16 league matches, beginning Wednesday when the Philadelphia Union play at Rio Tinto, 12 of them are against teams currently in playoff position.
"Now we're going to face juggernaut after juggernaut," Lagerwey said.
RSL was better in June than it was in March, the GM said, and he believes that the team could be better in September than now.
"But I think we need to be very cautious when looking forward," he said. "We haven't proven anything or accomplished anything. There's no prize for being first place in June."
Philadelphia Union at Real Salt Lake
O At Rio Tinto Stadium
Kickoff •Â Wednesday, 8 p.m.
TV • CW30
Records • RSL 10-5-3 (33 points); Union 7-5-5 (26 points)
About Real Salt Lake • RSL sits in first place in Major League Soccer after a perfect June. ... Real has scored 27 goals, good for second most in the league. ... Usual starters Alvaro Saborio, Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran will all be missing due to international duty. ... Salt Lake should see the return of midfielder Luis Gil, who is coming back from the U-20 World Cup in Turkey. ... Goalkeeper Josh Saunders, the likely starter in net, helped the Los Angeles Galaxy to the last two MLS championships.
About the Union • Forward Jack McInerney is one of the league's best scorers, but he won't be available for action after being named to the United States' Gold Cup roster. ... Has never won at Rio Tinto Stadium, last falling to RSL 2-1 on Sept. 3, 2011. ... Former Colorado Rapid Conor Casey has five goals on the year for the Union. ... After returning to Philadelphia this year following a stint in New York, Sebastian Le Toux has scored two goals and leads the team with seven assists.