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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Playoffs the goal for Real Salt Lake in 2007

By Tony Pizza

After an offseason that was as turbulent as the end of its 2006 season, Real Salt Lake is ready to start a new season.

Two months ago, it was unclear if RSL’s last season on the U campus would also be a farewell season for the team. The debate over whether a stadium could be built seemed to go on forever, but a legislation surge on Feb. 8 ensured that the Beehive State would soon become a suitable home for professional soccer for years to come — the new stadium is currently being built in Sandy.

Now RSL can focus on its primary goal: making the playoffs.

In 2006, Real Salt Lake became the first franchise in the short history of Major League Soccer to not make the playoffs in either of its first two seasons in the league. But RSL did not go down without a fight.

After starting the season out 0-6 last year, RSL feverishly tried to squeeze into the playoffs by going 6-3-4 in its final 13 games. Although the team fell just two points — or one win — short of a playoff berth, it made noticeable improvements as the regular season came to a close.

With RSL boasting a nearly unchanged starting roster, the chance for it to carry last season’s momentum into this season is very reasonable. But for RSL to finally get over the hump, it will first have to figure out how to cope with the loss of veteran goalkeeper Scott Garlick. Even with Garlick’s knack for making big saves and keeping his team in matches, RSL was still second in the league in goals allowed on the road and that is a stat that will have to change if RSL hopes to reverse its fortunes.

Taking on the bulk of the keeper’s responsibilities will be the untested crop of new faces in Chris Seitz, Nick Rimando and Kyle Reynish.

RSL would have the experience of backup goalie Jay Nolly to step in and weather the adjustment period the new keepers will experience, but RSL sent Nolly to D.C. United in the offseason for the services of 17-year-old phenom Freddy Adu.

Adu made a lot of noise when he burst onto the professional soccer scene in 2004, and although he was a great player in D.C. he never seemed to find his groove. One reason for this may be the fact that Adu — who is a natural midfielder — was relegated to playing the wing so that 2006 league MVP Christian Gomez could pace the midfield for D.C. United.

With RSL, Adu will have the dual pleasure of playing his more natural position while simultaneously being coached by a familiar face. John Ellinger coached Adu during his developmental soccer days, and now Ellinger will have the task of convincing Adu to stay with the team past June 2, when he turns 18.

At that point, Adu would be eligible to play professionally in Europe, and it is no secret that thought has probably crossed his mind. Most recently, Adu went to train with Manchester United, but the one certainty is that he will bolster RSL’s midfield for the first few months of the 2007 season.

Complementing Adu is one of the strongest midfields in the MLS today.

Chris Klein and Andy Thompson give RSL great scoring and passing options off the wings, and budding star Mehdi Ballouchy made strides last year toward becoming a great distributor of the ball. Combine that with the toughness and defending midfield capabilities of Carey Talley, and Ellinger will have the option of experimenting with a 3-5-2 formation this year.

Ellinger will also have the luxury of seasoned veteran and World Cup defender Eddie Pope anchoring the young but improving likes of Jack Steward, Willis Forko and Chris Lancos.

Like last year, RSL will also heavily rely on the scoring ability of Jeff Cunningham.

After Cunningham shed his Colorado Rapids jersey for the RSL variety, he immediately became an MVP candidate with his league-leading 16 goals.

For Cunningham and RSL, the start to this season should be a little more conducive to winning than the start of last year’s season was. RSL will play four of its first five games in Rice-Eccles Stadium where the team captured 24 of its 39 points last season.

To start its 2007 campaign, RSL will face off against Western Conference regular season champ FC Dallas. Fortunately, RSL knows it can beat Dallas after picking up its first victory over the Western Conference powerhouse in a must-win situation late last year.

The game kicks off at 4 p.m. and will be televised on Channel 5.

Notes: RSL will have 24 of its 30 games — including all 15 road games — televised. Two of the games will appear on ESPN 2 and nine will appear on FSN Utah.

Lennie Mahler

RSL’s Jeff Cunningham and Mehdi Ballouchy celebrate a goal scored by Ballouchy in a game against Houston Dynamo last season. RSL starts their 2007 season Saturday with a game against FC Dallas.

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