Preseason 2017: Recapping the wildest off-season yet for Real Salt Lake

Jun 22, 2016; Sandy, UT, USA; Real Salt Lake celebrate after a second half goal by midfielder Jordan Allen (70) against the New York Red Bulls at Rio Tinto Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 22, 2016; Sandy, UT, USA; Real Salt Lake celebrate after a second half goal by midfielder Jordan Allen (70) against the New York Red Bulls at Rio Tinto Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports /

A quick look back at the off-season changes Real Salt Lake made after their 2016 season in preparation for a new look 2017.

Everything seems to be coming together for the 2017 campaign as Real Salt Lake heads to Portland for the second leg of their preseason tour. The club has experienced major changes since being knocked out of the playoffs last October, but these new changes have brought with them a sense of optimism for the new season.

2016 Season: A Return to the Playoffs

For the majority of 2016, Real Salt Lake held their place as one of the top teams in both the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings. A hot 8-1-2 start would put them at the top of the table through April. Summer’s grind saw RSL maintain a respectable 7-5-7, going undefeated in Rio Tinto while picking up valuable road wins against Sporting Kansas City, NYCFC, and the Philadelphia Union.

Big wins against league leader FC Dallas and rival Colorado Rapids topped off the mid-season stretch. These victories came within a week of each other to close out August. At the time, Dallas and Colorado were in first and second overall in the combined standings. MLS play then took a short break for World Cup Qualifying, but it seemed RSL was rounding into form just in time for the postseason.

The Collapse

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While everything seemed to be great going into September, those big wins would be the last victories the team would have for the rest of the year. RSL would return from the break with a 3-3 thriller against a surging LA Galaxy. The game included a come back from a 3-1 deficit to force the draw in injury time. Just a few days after, RSL inexplicably ended their undefeated home streak against the last place Houston Dynamo.

Their spiral would continue as RSL finished the year 0-5-3, falling to sixth place in the Western Conference. Real was then eliminated by the Galaxy in the knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Seeing the Signs

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This quick fall took everyone by surprise. “[I’m] extremely disappointed to end the year on that performance in that magnitude of game.  I think it really reflects on how the last eight games of our year went,” said head coach Jeff Cassar on the Bill Riley Show following the playoff loss.

Asked about this skid to end the year Cassar added, “At the end of the day, it’s never one thing.  I think teams really started to sit back on us, especially on our home field, which makes it difficult to break down.  We didn’t have enough killer mentality to put away opponents when we had the opportunity and that left us vulnerable in the back.”

That lack of killer mentality and vulnerability seemed to stem from a spine that had been leading the team for several years– including 7 players who featured regularly for the claret and cobalt in their 2009 MLS Cup winning season. Coming up on 10 years from their title winning season, it finally time for a major roster shake up.

Counting the Casualties

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Club legend Javier Morales was the first domino to fall.  RSL then chose not to exercise their option on defender Jamison Olave; instead offering him a coaching role with Real Monarchs and the new academy.

The club additionally declined the options on Boyd Okwuonu, Phanuel Kavita, John Stertzer, Emery Welshman, and Olmes Garcia. They also chose not to buy forward Pedro Baez for a permanent move, and not to re-sign forward Devon Sandoval.

Long time backup goalkeeper Jeff Attinella was picked in the expansion draft by Minnesota United before being traded to Portland. Shock was felt again when the team agreed to mutually part ways with Designated Player Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez. Burrito scored 8 goals with 2 assists while regularly starting opposite of Joao Plata.

These decisions opened up 12 roster spots for the team moving forward, along with plenty of questions on how the team was going to look in the new season.

The Wildest Off-Season to Date

Additions came quickly and frequently. Youth became the common trend in moving forward. First, 20-year-old attacker Sebastian Saucedo returned to RSL following a year-long loan with Veracruz in Liga MX. UCLA midfielder Jose Hernandez, also 20, was signed to a homegrown deal.

Attinella was replaced by the 2016 NASL goalkeeper of the year, Matt Van Okel. The team re-signed center back standout Aaron Maund, along with versatile veteran Chris Wingert. Arguably the biggest signing of the year came as the club agreed to terms with 22-year-old, Slovakian attacker Albert Rusnák signed a young designated player deal.

Rusnák appears to be the heir-apparent to Javier Morales as the primary play-maker and engine in the attack. He will receive help from veteran Luis Silva. Silva, signed back from UANL Tigres in Liga MX, who played the role occasionally before he signed with the Mexican powerhouse following the 2015 MLS season.

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Real Salt Lake also brought in MLS veterans Chad Barrett and David Horst, following a controversially failed attempt at signing USA legend Landon Donovan as designated player. The youth movement continued as former RSL Academy star and Liverpool youth standout, Brooks Lennon had been loaned Real Salt Lake for the 2017 Season.

Real Salt Lake: Version 2017

Major turnover provides plenty of intrigue and plenty of questions moving forward for the new-look Real Salt Lake. The team expects to rely on Rusnák (22), Plata (24), and Jordan Allen (21) as the primary attacking pieces behind Yura Mosisyan (28). A stark contrast to the Plata, Morales (37), and Burrito (31) combination that ran out of gas in 2016.

Next: Worst MLS Designated Player Signings in History

Will the youth translate to success on the field? Did the team move on from their veteran leaders too quickly? On paper, the team looks to be one of the most exciting teams for the upcoming season. Whether or not the excitement translates to success has yet to be determined. Will these preparations prove the team to be victorious? The anticipation unfolds in just three short weeks.

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