Why Real Salt Lake leaders aren’t expecting big roster changes after a first-round exit

RSL looks ahead to 2024 after falling in the first round of the MLS Playoffs for the second straight year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Diego Luna (26), celebrates after kicking the winning goal during a shoot-out, in MLS soccer action between Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, at America First Field, in Sandy, on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.

Herriman • Diego Luna became a bona fide star for Real Salt Lake at the tail end of the 2023 season. He worked his way to a starting role in June, and scored clutch goals in big wins, including a penalty that kept the team alive in the playoffs against Houston.

RSL’s season ended recently in the first round of the playoffs. Now the conversation turns to what’s next, and what the team wants and needs to do to win the silverware it so desperately wants.

Luna is arguably the future of RSL. He’s only 20 years old and has developed in an ideal way since his arrival last season from the El Paso Locomotive, a team in the top division of the United Soccer League. And with the way Luna finished the season, it stands to reason that teams from all over the world will express interest in the attacking player.

But as far Luna is concerned, he’s committed to RSL.

“All I’m focused on is coming back here next year, playing for RSL,” Luna said this week during his exit interview with reporters. “Whatever happens, happens. But right now I’m playing for RSL and that’s what I want to be doing. I’m going to give it my all.”

Luna scored a goal in four of his last five games. He finished the 2023 season with five goals and three assists in 23 games (14 starts). He is under contract through 2024, with club options for 2025 and 2026.

General manager Elliot Fall did not seem worried about Luna getting poached from the club any time soon. He described Luna’s future as “incredibly bright,” and said his impact will grow in the years to come.

“Having had a lot of dialogue with Diego as well, I don’t anticipate it being really hard to keep him here,” Fall said.

RSL’s playoff exit came after an up-and-down season. It had a stretch of losing four straight games, along with an undefeated stretch in June and July. But the team was still one penalty kick away from advancing to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.

The club has never been shy about its desire to win trophies, whether that’s in the Leagues Cup, U.S. Open Cup or MLS Cup. And even though 2023 marked the season straight year of losing in the first round of the playoffs on penalty kicks, there’s a high level of confidence that this team isn’t that far away from its goal.

“We did a good job bringing in players this year,” midfielder Jasper Löffelsend said. “With a healthy squad and everybody being at their top, with a healthy culture in the club, I feel like this team is the best team in MLS.”

Fall said he “absolutely” agrees that RSL has enough to win some silverware. But, he said, it’s hard to win. He recalled a time in the club’s history from 2010-2013 when he thought Salt Lake was the best team in the league, but did not win any trophies.

Fall said the team had plenty of moments where if something breaks a different way, it could’ve been that much closer to a trophy. But too often, those situations ended in defeat. Perhaps RSL becomes better for it, he suggested.

“This is a roster and this is a group and this is a staff that is absolutely talented enough to win trophies,” Fall said. “But sometimes you have to learn how to win. And maybe what we needed in some of those moments were those little failures to learn what it takes next year.”

Offseasons almost always mean personnel changes. Fall, without being specific, said there were a couple of positions the club has targeted for upgrades. But he said there may not be as much roster movement as some think.

“I think we’re gonna see less movement out than we have at times in the past,” Fall said. “Part of that is because this is a long-term project.”

Coach Pablo Mastroeni said he wants to be a better coach next season by listening more to the players and making sure he’s putting them in “the prime environment” to be at their best. But he started his answer to that question with a personal goal, and one that’s a clear microcosm of the organization’s thinking.

“I want to win something,” Mastroeni said.