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Horton: Saunders and Stephenson add valuable experience to young RSL side

23 February 8:19 am

Horton: Saunders and Stephenson add valuable experience to young RSL side

By Jeremy Horton

With just over a week to go before starting their 2013 MLS campaign, Real Salt Lake's opening-day roster is finally taking shape as the Claret-and-Cobalt have officially added GK Josh Saunders and MF Khari Stephenson to the mix. In an offseason where RSL brass clearly focused on adding young talent, Stephenson and Saunders bring a healthy dose of veteran leadership and experience to the team. Let's take a look at who these players are, what they bring to the table, and what roles they could fill throughout the year.

Stephenson is a 32-year-old attacking midfielder who has been playing professionally since he was picked 28th overall in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft by the Fire. After a brief stop in Kansas City, he decided to try his luck overseas and spent several years in Scandinavia with a couple of clubs. In 2010 he came back to MLS with San Jose and spent a total of three seasons there. He was a regular for the 'Quakes, appearing in 69 matches over three seasons and helping them win the Supporter's Shield last season.

The first thing you notice about Stephenson is that he doesn't look like an attacking mid - without knowing his position, you would probably guess he's a #9 or a center back. That's because, at 6'2", he towers over most creative mids. His size means he's difficult to separate from the ball, something that's not a strength of most MLS #10's. He has the good vision and solid technical ability requisite for his position, and he is willing and able to shoot from distance. We got our first taste of that a few nights ago as he struck a well-hit game-winner from 18 yards.

Stephenson is a versatile player who should be able to play three of the four midfield spots for RSL, and even fill in at striker in a pinch. He could be one of the first players off the bench for Jason Kreis, especially in matches where RSL is leading and needs to salt the game away. His strength on the ball and intelligent possession play should make him a valuable asset in those situations.

The 31-year-old Saunders is a guy who is well known by RSL fans - it was he who came into the 2009 MLS Cup final for L.A. in place of Donovan Ricketts. Of course, RSL came away victorious via penalties in that match, but it's hard to fault Saunders who saved two of seven RSL penalties. If it weren't for an even better performance from Nick Rimando, Saunders would have walked home a champion and a hero to L.A. fans. He didn't have to wait long, though; by 2011 Ricketts was gone and Saunders was the go-to guy, backstopping them to consecutive MLS Cup wins in 2011 and 2012.

Josh Saunders is your prototypical goalkeeper - huge (6'4"), athletic, and a vocal organizer of defenses. But what you have to love about Saunders - and no doubt appeals to Kreis too - is Saunders is a winner. As a pro he's been successful at the highest levels. Of course, soccer is a team sport and he's been fortunate to be on some great teams, but don't discount the confidence and attitude you get from a proven winner.

Saunders will be the clear No. 2 goalkeeper behind Nick Rimando. Obviously we hope Rimando stays healthy enough to play all year, but there are no guarantees, plus Rimando may miss some time if he gets called up by the U.S. national team for World Cup Qualifiers or this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup. I would expect Saunders to get a handful of games this year in relief of Rimando. The addition of Saunders makes RSL's goalkeeper position the strongest in MLS in my opinion. How many other teams can say their backup GK has played in three MLS Cup finals, and won two of them?

How much of an impact Khari Stephenson and Josh Saunders make remains to be seen, but they will bring some needed experience and veteran savvy to this very young RSL squad.

A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and helps cover the team for ESPN 700 AM