Sandy • It took seven matches and more than a dozen early-season injuries that resulted in over 30 games missed by players battling various knocks before Jeff Cassar and his staff had the sudden luxury of facing tough game-day decisions.
Real Salt Lake still isn’t there as a few players continue to work their way back, but Saturday’s 1-0 win over Portland was perhaps a view of what Cassar, RSL’s first-year head coach, has at his disposal.
"It’s great," said captain Kyle Beckerman, "but we still have a ways to go."
And if RSL wants to start to rack up the points before its stars more-than-likely depart for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil this summer, it will need its depth to shine through and be healthy. The club is 3-0-4, the last unbeaten in Major League Soccer having managed that tricky slate of matches to start the season, and with 13 points sits tied for second place in the Western Conference with the Seattle Sounders.
The return of Nick Rimando, Joao Plata, Sebastian Velasquez, Devon Sandoval and Luis Gil for selection was an obvious bright spot behind Ned Grabavoy’s game-winner in the 78th minute against the Timbers and Rimando’s late-game heroics.
Facing Vancouver at home next week, followed by road trips to Chicago (winless in seven outings) and Houston, RSL has an opportunity to build upon its impressive start.
"Competition is important, without question," Grabavoy said, "and then it becomes form and sharpness. And there are some good players who don’t make our 18-man roster — there are good players on our team who weren’t in the 18 [Saturday], and that’s all part of the competition to hopefully make the team better."
Beckerman, Rimando and forward Alvaro Saborio are essential shoo-ins to be called into respective World Cup preparation camps in mid-May. U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann will call in a 30-man roster on May 14, but will take only 23 on the plane, which means he could conceivably look at defenders Chris Schuler and Tony Beltran along with Gil for call-ups.
Forward Robbie Findley returned to training last week for the first time since rehabbing his off-season knee surgery, while Rich Balchan (groin) and Cole Grossman (shins) are questionable heading into this week’s match against Vancouver.
Possibilities are many, which means the next few weeks are crucial. And topping Portland was a good start.
"It’s always good to get a win against them and try to put as much distance from them as we possibly can because they’re a very, very good team," Cassar said.
But like 2013, the West is stacked. RSL is predictably in the mix, but faces Colorado (11 points), FC Dallas (league-leading 16 points) and Seattle (13 points) the three consecutive weeks after World Cup camps are summoned.
"It seems like this club’s always up for the big games," Cassar said.
RSL will have a flurry of them in a few weeks.
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