Real Salt Lake: 2017 Season Preview

Jul 1, 2016; Sandy, UT, USA; Real Salt Lake fans display a large team flag at field level prior to the match against D.C. United at Rio Tinto Stadium. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 1, 2016; Sandy, UT, USA; Real Salt Lake fans display a large team flag at field level prior to the match against D.C. United at Rio Tinto Stadium. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

Real Salt Lake enter the 2017 season surrounded with uncertainty. A major roster overhaul along with another charge in formation and playing style make for plenty of intrigue for the upcoming MLS season.

In order to fully preview 2017 season, we need to remember how Real Salt Lake finished off 2016. The club returned to the MLS Playoffs after missing out in 2015, which was their first season without a post season since 2007. A return to the playoffs was great for the club, but the team floundered after a promising start to the season, finishing 0-5-3 over their last eight games.

After finishing in sixth place in the West and being knocked out of the playoffs, once again by the LA Galaxy, it seemed like it was time for the team to make major changes in order to continue building on the success the club has had over the last decade. With several wholesale changes to the roster and a new focus on youth as the club moves forward, 2017 should be one of the most exciting RSL seasons in the club’s history.

Regardless of how the team does this year, 2016 will always be remembered as a turning point for the club. Club legend Javier Morales left the club after leading the team for ten consecutive seasons. The reasons for Javi’s move will likely always be controversial, but it was an inevitable change the club would need to address sooner rather than later.

Replacing El Maestro was the top priority for GM Craig Weibel, and whether or not the team can replace the production of arguably one of the greatest MLS players in league history will be the main story-line for the Claret & Cobalt this year.

2016 Highlights

2016 Record: 12-12-10

2016 Finishing Place: 6th place in the Western Conference. 9th Overall.

Real opened up 2016 with the knockout rounds of the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League. Four MLS teams were drawn against four Liga MX sides for the knockout rounds, which saw RSL matched up against reigning Liga MX Champion and Mexico powerhouse, UANL Tigres. Tigres had just missed out on a chance to become the first North American side ever to win Copa Libertadores, where they fell to River Plate of Argentina 3-0 in the second leg following a 0-0 draw in the first.

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After a disappointing 2015 season, and an impressive Tigres resume, RSL was viewed by all as a major underdog. RSL looked up to the task in Monterrey for the first leg. It took Tigres 67 minutes to find the back of the net and a late mishap in the 87th sent RSL back to Rio Tinto down 2-0.

In front of a record crowd at the RioT, Real would come out of the attack, going up a goal just 22 minutes into the match. RSL kept the pressure going well into the second half needing just one more goal to force extra time. Yura hit the bar and Burrito missed the rebound in the 56th, and Javi missed a controversially awarded penalty kick a few minutes later. RSL looked every bit up to the task for the remainder of the contest, but Tigres would get a late goal in extra time to make it 1-1, 3-1 on aggregate.

While the defeat was hard to swallow, RSL looked like they were back in their old form again. Despite playing Tigres, RSL noticeably the best appearance by the MLS sides in the tournament, and by a wide margin. Excitement then surrounded the team for the upcoming year, and their hot start only built on their momentum. Through the first half of the year they built on that success with a 8-5-4 record through 17 games. Over the second half they lost their momentum going only 4-7-6 over their last 17 games, along with an early Open Cup exit, losing in penalty kicks to a reserve filled Seattle squad despite dominating for 120 minutes.

Real Salt Lake
Oct 16, 2016; Sandy, UT, USA; Real Salt Lake fans show their spirit prior to their game against the Sporting Kansas City at Rio Tinto Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports /

Offseason Transfers

Transfers Out:

  • Javier Morales (option declined)- FC Dallas
  • Jamison Olave (option declined)- Retired (accepted role as RSL Academy Coach)
  • Boyd Okwuonu (option declined)- Unattached
  • Phanuel Kavita (option declined)- Unattached
  • John Stertzer (option declined)- NYCFC
  • Emery Welshman (option declined)- Unattached
  • Olmes Garcia (option declined)- San Jose Earthquakes
  • Pedro Baez (loan expired)- Cerro Porteño
  • Devon Sandoval (out of contract)- San Francisco Deltas
  • Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez (mutual agreement)- Velez Sarsfield
  • Jeff Attinella (expansion draft to MNUFC)- Portland Timbers

Transfers In:

  • Sebastian Saucedo (return from loan)- Veracruz
  • Jose Hernandez (homegrown)- UCLA Bruins
  • Matt Van Oekel (free transfer)- FC Edmonton
  • Albert Rusnak (transfer)- FC Groningen
  • Chad Barrett (free agent)- San Jose Earthquakes
  • David Horst (free agent)- Portland Timbers
  • Luis Silva (free transfer)- Tigres UANL
  • Brooks Lennon (one year loan)- Liverpool FC

Youth and speed are the two common changes between last year and the 2017 season. So far the preseason has been filled with plenty of goals and excitement. With the team moving into a high-press style of play, several questions still remain for the back line. Center back was a major need going into the 2016 season that was never addressed, which led to the emergence of the Aaron Maund and Justen Glad pairing.

The two should be the regular starters for 2017, but Glad could miss time for the U-20 World Cup and Maund is returning from a toe injury that saw him miss extended time in 2016. Veterans Chris Schuler and David Horst could see regular minutes, but questions still remain in the club has the pieces in the back to keep up with the attacking pieces throughout the league.

Predicted Starting XI

After spending the last few years moving on from the 4-4-2 diamond with the 4-3-3, RSL has mixed things up again with a 4-2-3-1 so far this preseason. Here is how the club will likely take the field for most of the 2017 season:

Albert Rusnak should have plenty of opportunities to show off his creativity as the lone man in the middle. He’ll be surrounded by speed standing behind Yura and flanked by Plata and Allen. Jordan Allen has been one of the breakout players through the preseason, and is poised to have a big year. Staying on the wing should help him find consistency as he saw playing time at several positions last year.

Youngsters Brooks Lennon and Sebastian Saucedo could also see regular time on the wings. Ricardo Velazco showed several promising flashes throughout the preseason and will likely have multiple chances behind Plata as well.

The team finished 2016 tied for 13th in total goals scored with 44 along with Seattle and New England. An improvement on the 38 goal tally in 2015, but still behind the 54 and 57 goals the team created the two years prior.

The attack will need several players to help bring that total up for the 2017 season. Last year saw Yura, Burrito and Plata outscored the rest of the team 25 to 17, and it becomes even more lopsided when you add Javi’s four goals to their total.

RSL has never had the depth in the attack like they will for 2017. Hopefully the team and their new playing style will produce multiple double-digit goal scorers, along with several players finding the back of the net throughout the year.

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2017 Season Prediction

Real Salt Lake has brought in several key pieces to make a run in 2017 and build on their previous season. With the new depth added to the team, the squad should be able to avoid a collapse late in the year that hurt them in 2016. The injection of youth and speed should create the exciting attacking spark RSL fans miss from a few short years ago, but that spark will also be necessary in the teams hunt for the post season.

The addition of Minnesota United and some of the 2017 signings throughout the Western Conference mean RSL has to take care of business at home more than ever before, bringing back the fortress Rio Tinto had been known for. Justen Glad and Aaron Maund should build on their strong 2016 partnership in the back. Depth along the back-line remains a key question for the long MLS season grind.

The amount of changes to the first team squad make it hard to predict how the 2017 season will play out. Rusnak will have the pressure to contribute at high level right from the first whistle. If he can make that contribution the club could be primed for a deep run, but if not it could be another long and frustrating year for Real Salt Lake.

Finish Position: Fourth in the Western Conference.

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2017 MLS Team Previews