2008 shaping up to be new start for RSL

By By Chris Kamrani and By Chris Kamrani

By Chris Kamrani

Like many expansion franchises in professional sports, Real Salt Lake has taken its fair share of beatings.

The predicament is that most did not anticipate it would take the team three seasons to reach a respectable level.

RSL enters its fourth season in Major League Soccer with an overhauled roster, a remarkable stadium to be finished by fall and its most talented squad to date. A season ago, the team had what was arguably the most potent offense in the league.

With players such as Jeff Cunningham, Freddy Adu, Mehdi Ballouchy and Chris Klein, Real was poised to outscore the opposition throughout the season. Then, on opening day, the first of many blunders caused one of the biggest domino effects in MLS history.

With a one-goal lead, keeper Nick Rimando decided to charge out of the box and attempt to two-hand punch the ball out for the final clear of last year’s home opener. Needless to say, he missed, and the ball rolled in, resulting in a disappointing 2-2 tie.

From there on out, RSL saw a span of mediocre play, resulting in countless ties that eventually began to turn into losses. The poster boys were shipped out of town left and right. Jason Kreis became head coach, and a once-promising season was flushed down toward futility within months. After Kreis took over and reshaped the roster to his liking, the team began to come around with intense desire and hustle while attempting to overcome its overall lack of skill.

As for today, the sun seems to be shining through for, perhaps, the most mystifying team in the MLS.

With Saturday’s home-opener against the Chicago Fire comes an incredible amount of optimism and ambiguity.

The squad that seems almost night-and-day compared to last year’s team brings versatile talent, hard-nosed will and a dangerous notion of surprise. Kreis obviously wanted to shape his team around passion and all-out effort-much like his game during his esteemed playing days. RSL made the most important signings for any team in the MLS this past offseason, thanks to rookie G.M. Garth Lagerway.

Impact holdovers from last year include new poster boy midfielder Kyle Beckerman, speedy surprise forward Robbie Findley and last year’s trio of Matias Mantilla, Javier Morales and Fabian Espindola.

Lagerway and Kreis had a harsh winter of indecision turn into a sunny plethora of signings.

The most notable of those was attracting Scottish Premier League striker Kenny Deuchar to the team. Deuchar, also known as “Dr. Goal” because he is a licensed physician in Scotland, stands at an imposing 6-foot-3 and weighs in around 200 lbs. In other words, the perfect running mate up front for the speedster Findley. Lagerway also brought in another Argentine in midfielder Matias Cordoba, as well as a fiery midfielder named Dema Kovalenko who used to play for the New York Red Bulls.

The most impressive overhaul came at the defensive front. Losing captain and warrior Eddie Pope to retirement left the team struggling to find reliable defensive players.

The front office made sure they would not be struggling on defense this season.

To go along with center back Mantilla and outside back Chris Wingert, RSL signed two Pope-like clones in Colombian Jamison Olave and former Colorado Rapid Nat Borchers. To add to that is American-born Ian Joy, a feisty, undersized left back that has been playing in the German Bundesliga.

The goalkeeper position is Real’s most concrete. Many believed last year’s MVP Rimando should have received the MLS Keeper of the Year award. Rimando will be grooming the seat for U-23 keeper Chris Seitz, who will likely be the next starter for the U.S. national team at the position.

The one cloudy spot for the team is the midfield.

What formation will Kreis run to get the most out of all the new and old players? Obviously Beckerman and offensive wizard Morales will start in the middle, but who will start outside? Kovalenko looks like he could be a lock for one of the wing positions, leaving the other possibility as Espindola, a natural forward who could thrive playing left wing.

The team will feature a tremendously deep, talented bench with the flamboyance of Andy Williams, forward Yura Movsisyan, midfielders Carey Talley and U-23 stud Nathan Sturgis. Also, rookies Tony Beltran, David Horst and minuscule 5-foot-5 Alex Nimo could make impacts with the first team as well.

This team is, without a doubt, the most potent RSL squad to date. The pieces are in place. Kreis seems to have the guys he wants, and he’s getting a new stadium to boot. Fans and management hope to see a skilled team, a jostled team, but most importantly, a winning team.

X-Factor-Javier MoralesThe typical Argentinean “No. 10” flourished in the lineup last season when he wasn’t injured. The season ended early for Morales after undergoing shoulder surgery before the last game of the season. RSL must rely on his incredible vision, through balls and dead-eye free-kicks to continue a winning pace. Most fans will remember the 25-yard set piece late in the game against the L.A. Galaxy to salvage a 2-2 tie. That’s what the team will need all season.

Breakout star-Robbie FindleyGranted Findley cemented himself as one of the top young forwards in the league last season, but he didn’t play its entirety. Being shipped over from the Galaxy along with Sturgis, Findley scored two goals in his RSL debut and didn’t look back. Nearly impossible to mark on the run, Findley has an uncanny ability to finish. He must learn how to improve his touch and dribbling skills to become the elite forward the team needs him to be.

PredictionRSL will have a difficult time adjusting to one another at the beginning, but will eventually gel and dip into their inconceivable versatility later in the season. If key players such as Beckerman, Morales and Rimando can stay healthy, Real will cement themselves as a playoff wild card and will have the potential to make some noise come playoff time.

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