After taking Monday and Tuesday off, Real Salt Lake returned to training on Wednesday ahead of Sunday's MLS regular season opener at defending Supporters' Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes.
RSL trained on Wednesday at the Utah Sports Lodge, putting in about 90 minutes of work on a turf field at the indoor facility before heading back to Rio Tinto Stadium. Missing from Wednesday's training were injured players Javier Morales and Chris Wingert as well as midfielder Luis Gil, who is traveling back to Salt Lake City on Wednesday from the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Puebla, Mexico. Injured defender Nat Borchers was at the session, training individually on the sidelines throughout. Borchers is expected to be back in action in mid- to early-April.
RSL will train again in Utah on Thursday before departing for San Jose, where it will practice on Friday and Saturday. The Claret-and-Cobalt is hoping to train on Thursday at America First Field in Sandy, but may be forced indoors again due to weather conditions.
Sunday's season opener will kick off at 8 p.m. MT on CW30. The 30-minute Ford Pregame Show will begin at 7:30 p.m. MT on CW30.
Real Salt Lake color commentator Brian Dunseth had some interesting things to say about RSL’s depth during On Frame on ESPN 700 on Monday night, declaring that the Claret-and-Cobalt – despite all of its offseason changes – is unquestionably the deepest team in MLS.
“This is a much deeper team than it was last season,” Dunseth said. “I know that’s crazy to say, but for me this is the deepest team in Major League Soccer, hands down, no competition anywhere else.”
It’s easy to see where Dunny’s coming from. The Claret-and-Cobalt is stocked at nearly every position this year, going a solid four or five deep at forward, nine or 10 deep in the midfield and eight or nine deep in the defense. RSL even has some solid competition at the goalkeeper spot, with 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup winning ‘keeper Josh Saunders backing up RSL mainstay Nick Rimando.
All of that is a big change from last season, when RSL didn’t have many bench options at any position, let alone at all four.
“You look at over the last three, four years and RSL is one of the best teams in Major League Soccer,” Dunseth said. “Then you add Josh Saunders, who’s played in three out of the last four MLS Cup Finals for the L.A. Galaxy; Robbie Findley comes back; you get Joao Plata, arguably the most dynamic player in CONCACAF Champions League play from a MLS-based team last year; Lovel Palmer, a guy with MLS experience; Khari Stephenson, he’s slid in perfectly with this group; you add Cole Grossman, who’s played some games in Columbus; Rich Balchan, potentially, if he signs, the same thing; Aaron Maund from Toronto.
“Then you get to the draft picks. Devon Sandoval has been very, very good in a short amount of time in preseason. John Stertzer, he’s pro ready and we talked about this right after the draft, this kid can slot in and play. Then you have Olmes Garcia, a young physical talent who has all the capabilities in the world to be a good player.”
And those are just the new players. Dunseth didn’t even mention returnees Sebastian Velasquez – who looked very good in preseason – Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Kenny Mansally and Yordany Alvarez, all players who have proven that they can play in MLS and will get minutes in 2013.
“Right now, I just don’t see how you can argue the point,” Dunseth said. “This is the deepest team in Major League Soccer based on games played and experience.”
Real Salt Lake lost the Desert Diamond Cup Final 0-1 to Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, giving up a goal from a counterattacking ball over the top. In a match in which the Claret-and-Cobalt dominated early proceedings and should have put at least a goal or two on the board, the story is less about winning and losing and more about preparation for the season's opener, now less than a week away.
Pacing the match
The first half saw both Real Salt Lake and Seattle creating chance after chance, with Marcus Hahnemann demonstrating that perhaps 40 isn't too old to play in goal in this league. Those chances came from across the field of play, with long shots nearly again making the difference. It's funny how that works.
The early pace of the game was frenetic, but it also saw three clear-cut chances for Real Salt Lake. Two of those were created from hopeful shots — one from Sebastian Velasquez and one from Kyle Beckerman — and the other was created from an Alvaro Saborio header. Inevitably, the side tired late on as many of them played their first consecutive 90 minutes of preseason — with the season roaring into view, that's essential.
The pacing suffered as a result, but the more important consideration was getting a fit group of players ready for a match on Sunday. Losing the Desert Diamond Cup stung ever-so-slightly — to our oft-repeated foes, no less — but in the end, the most important thing wasn't winning.
Defending the counter attack
Once again, we've seen this side fall to a counterattacking goal by Seattle, caught on the break with our defenders rather left to dry. A long ball over the top sprung Seattle, a spate of individual errors gave them an opportunity, and a good finish sealed the match.
It's a storyline that's been told and retold over the last few years. It's the danger of pushing men forward in attack, the inevitable downside of high-line defenses and high pressure. A little switch, perhaps, that would cue fullbacks in to those very dangerous moments would be magnificent here, but that hardly seems forthcoming. A bit more recognition of the danger posed by Seattle on the counter would have gone a long way.
Stepping up: The Velasquez 45
Sebastian Velasquez had perhaps the strongest 45 minutes of preseason he had so far — a good sign considering it was his final 45 of the preseason, and improvement over time is never a bad thing — impressing throughout with his ability on the ball and his still-developing vision.
Playing at the top of the diamond, where he's likely to start on Sunday, Velasquez ran the show. Plain and simple, he controlled the tempo, pacing and direction of Real Salt Lake's attack. His departure at the half gutted the side — a statement that speaks well of him and perhaps less so of the players who remained.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil notched an assist in the U.S. Under-20 national team's 1-0 win over Costa Rica in the Group Stage of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship on Friday night.
Gil delivered the corner kick that L.A. Galaxy attacker Jose Villarreal nodded home in the 63rd minute. Friday night's win moved the U.S. to 2-0-0 in the Group Stage, giving the Stars-and-Stripes the Group A title.
The U.S. will now face Group B runners-up Canada in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship Quarterfinals on Feb. 26. The winner of that match will advance to this summer's 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
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
Luis Gil and the U.S. Under-20 national team got some good news on Wednesday night, when Costa Rica beat Haiti in Group A action at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship to book the U.S.’s passage into the Quarterfinals.
The U.S. now sits in first-place in Group A, ahead of second-place Costa Rica by virtue of the goals scored tiebreaker. The U.S. and Costa Rica will both advance out of Group A, as Haiti concluded its Group Stage schedule with zero points and cannot finish as one of the top two teams in the group.
Gil and the U.S. beat Haiti 2-1 on Monday night, with Gil scoring the opener on a penalty kick and starting the play that led to the U.S.'s second goal.
The U.S. will play Costa Rica on Friday with the Group A title on the line. The Stars-and-Stripes need just a tie against Los Ticos to win the group. The Group A winner will play either Canada or Nicaragua in the Quarterfinals, while the Group A runner-up will take on Cuba in the Quarters.
The four teams that advance out of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship Quarterfinals and into the tournament Semifinals will qualify for this summer’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
The most-discussed acquisition of the RSL offseason came to a head this past week as the identity of the unsigned forward nicknamed "Striker X" was revealed to be Olmes Garcia, a 20-year-old who last played for Deportes Quindio in Colombia's First Division. With the anticipation surrounding Garcia's arrival, the next question Salt Lake fans should have is, when can we expect him to take the pitch? Will he contribute right away or is he more of a project?
The answer may be a bit of both. We already saw Garcia get some minutes on Wednesday against the Revolution in the Desert Diamond Cup, but the answer to when he can expect to get meaningful league playing time is a bit more complicated. Garcia has some things working in his favor and some things working against him...see below.
Working in Garcia's favor:
- Size - Olmes is 6-foot and is supposedly strong in the air, meaning he should have the size and aerial prowess to fill in for fellow forward Alvaro Saborio.
- Speed - His raw speed will enable him to play alongside Saborio. On Wednesday, RSL GM Garth Lagerwey told Bill Riley and Hans Olsen on ESPN 700 radio that it was Garcia's speed that first put him on RSL's radar. "He has tons of speed," said Lagerwey. "That speed is key to opening up the field."
- Pro experience - It's odd to say experience is an asset when talking about a 20-year-old, but the fact is Garcia has been a pro for two years. He’s been playing - and scoring - in the Colombian First Division, a league that's comparable to MLS. His acclimation to the rigors of MLS should be less than a player coming from a lower division or college soccer.
- System - 'OG' is fortunate that his previous employer played a 4-1-2-1-2 that's similar to RSL’s system. That could help him adapt to the Claret-and-Cobalt’s style.
Working against him:
- Age - Garcia may have more pro experience than any underage RSL player not named Luis Gil, but the fact is he is just 20. We can't call him a seasoned veteran yet.
- Late arrival – Garcia’s late arrival in the U.S. mean that he'll end up with less than two weeks of preseason instruction. In my mind that makes him less likely to contribute right away than if he had shown up in January.
- New environment/new language - Garcia speaks very little English and has never spent time in the United States, which could hamper his ability to integrate quickly. Lagerwey told Bill and Hans that "he's from a different culture so he's going to take some time."
- Depth - With a complement of healthy strikers expected on opening day, the coaching staff won't be handing starting striker spots out like concert flyers. Garcia will have to earn himself a spot, and that won't be easy given the striker corps RSL has assembled.
I look at Olmes Garcia very similar to how I look at Real Salt Lake midfielder David Viana - a player with unquestionable attacking talent, but one who has to show what he's made of. I wouldn't expect to see Garcia starting anytime in the early season, but I do think he'll make meaningful contributions to RSL later in 2013.
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
A late surge saw a vaguely veteran Real Salt Lake side eke out a 3-2 win over New England Revolution on Wednesday night, earning a spot in the Desert Diamond Cup Final.
The First Team Resurgence
Late resurgences are always a joy to watch, but deconstructing how exactly they came into being can be a bit difficult. It's easy to point at New England Revolution last night and accuse them of not seeing out the match, but that largely ignores the quality of the play that led to the goals.
The first of the two in the late surge came about through fantastic play by Alvaro Saborio, whose maneuvering on the edge of the box from a Ned Grabavoy pass positioned him to score a fantastic goal. The second came from Khari Stephenson — again from a Ned Grabavoy pass from the right channel. Grabavoy's ability to find space on the right flank was crucial, though perhaps a bit subtle.
Certainly New England could have defended the build-up more effectively, but their inability to hold on to the lead was down more to Real Salt Lake's first-team quality than other concerns.
The Viana Free Role
David Viana was deployed in the first half in a nominally striking role — a position which he's been dropped into at times later on in matches, but starting as a striker is a different sort of affair.
Viana came out in a quintessential free role role, with his primary roles on the pitch as a second-striker role behind Devon Sandoval and — more often — as a winger, primarily on the left flank. However, with this move, his influence was cut substantially: He saw less of the ball in dangerous attacking areas than in previous Desert Diamond Cup matches, serving more in build-up play from deeper positions.
The Velasquez Diamond
Sebastian Velasquez was handed his first real opportunity at the top of the diamond in preseason, filling a role played by Grabavoy, Viana and Stephenson so far, among others. It's a more natural position for the youngster, but I suspect he's being given more time in the outside of the diamond simply because it's where he'll undoubtedly see the most time in 2013.
He was effective in attack, and it was his shot from distance which led to the tap-in for Devon Sandoval. He also showed flashes of absolute brilliance on the ball, dribbling around players with the utmost of ease, cutting through the mess of midfield and creating opportunities. He didn't run the show as a playmaker, but he was incredibly bright on the ball.