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17 January 10:28 am

Exciting news out of the Real Salt Lake offices today as we learned that All-Star attacking midfielder Javier Morales has signed an offer to return to Salt Lake, keeping him in the Claret-and-Cobalt possibly for at least the 2013 season.

League and team policy mean that the terms of Javi's new contract haven't been made public yet - we won't get hard and fast numbers until the MLS Player's Union releases salaries later in the year - but we do know is it's an incentive-laden deal. As Morales was RSL's highest-paid player last season, the value of his new contract was the subject of much discussion this offseason, especially in light of his age (he turned 33 on Jan. 10) and the horrific ankle injury he suffered in 2011. But the reason RSL worked so hard to keep him in the fold is because they don't yet have a replacement that can bring what he brings.

Jason Kreis' diamond system revolves around a strong central midfield pairing. One reason it's been so successful is that he enjoys two of the best players in MLS at those positions. Kyle Beckerman is arguably the best defensive mid in MLS - his job (on offense) is to make simple passes with a high completion percentage, which he does. Morales' job is to make high-risk, incisive passes and spread the field.

Without an effective attacking mid, the team tends to collapse toward the middle and get bogged down because there's no space. In order to keep the width, Javi needs to touch the ball a lot - maybe every five or so passes needs to go through him - and distribute to wide players. Where Javi excels is in his vision of the field, his soccer IQ which tells him where the ball needs to go next, and his ability to put himself in places where he can touch the ball as often as the system demands. Right now RSL simply doesn't have another player with that skill set.

Morales' age and injury history have at times cast doubt on his ability to stay in form, but do the numbers bear that out? Soccer is not an easy game to analyze statistically, but for a moment let's focus on assists because those are a fairly good indicator of how a No. 10 like Javi is performing. He lead the team in assists last year, but here's the part that indicates how valuable he is to RSL: His 9 assists were 21% of the team's total. In case you're wondering how that compares to his earlier years, that number is exactly in line with his career total, highlighting his continued importance to RSL's offensive effort. And lest you think Javi was less efficient at dishing out dimes in 2012, consider this: Last year he averaged 0.38 assists per 90 minutes. That's the second-most efficient year of his career and his highest of the last four seasons - only his 2008 efficiency was better. So rest assured, Morales is still making the most of his minutes.

Of course, it's doubtful that a 33-year-old midfielder (especially one who gets fouled as much as Javi does) is going to play 90 minutes every night of the grueling MLS season. That's where the incentive-laden contract comes in. It's likely that Morales' salary will depend to some degree on his performance metrics, including minutes played. In effect, it's an insurance policy for RSL in case Javier's output drops off or he can't go as many minutes - a shrewd move by one of the smartest front offices around.

Entering the twilight of his career, Javier Morales is still one of the top attacking midfielders in MLS and I expect he'll continue to ably orchestrate RSL's attack in 2013 and hopefully beyond. Welcome back, Javi!

A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and will cover the team for ESPN700 AM

16 January 4:21 pm

Robbie Findley's return to Real Salt Lake marks an opportunity for Jason Kreis to employ a genuinely fast striker for the first time since 2010. More than just raw speed, his arrival marks a chance to facilitate tactical approaches the club's missed out on in his absence.

Speed

There's no denying that Robbie Findley is quick on his feet. Some argued during 2011 and 2012 that Real Salt Lake was missing a fast striker, and perhaps they were right. Not so much because the strikers at the club were slow — Espindola at his best flew past defenses, and Alvaro Saborio has been known to have a good burst of pace — but because of the tactical adjustments it involved.

Working Findley into the side requires a shift in approach up front from what the last two years have brought us. With Espindola taking up wide and channel-running positions, the mode of attack became one that relied on running at defenders rather than finding that same sort of space centrally. Findley presents basically that — it's certainly a different approach, and it's hard to prefer one over the other without seeing how it works again more than two years later.

With Findley's pace and acceleration paired with his more central running tendencies, Real Salt Lake would have a definitively speedy option either in the lineup or on the bench. At the very least it provides a sort of nagging thought in defenders' approach, but it's hardly the sort of thing you plan a match around.

Space

There are two major ways quick forwards create space for a side. The first requires little tactical adjustment: Findley pushes forward, forcing one or two defenders to follow alongside. This allows Saborio a bit more freedom as well, which would be a welcome change, considering he was at times presented with two or three defenders against whom he was to hold up the ball.

The space created comes higher up in the midfield, which would leave Javier Morales (or some other attacking midfielder) with more room to create. The major disadvantage this provides would be a susceptibility to offside traps.

The second major method involves Findley dropping deeper and remaining less involved in build-up play as the opposition is drawn deeper into Real Salt Lake's half of the pitch. This naturally involves some risk and requires a high degree of precision in the passing and movement of the side, but when Robbie Findley streaks clear of the last defender and is through on goal with the shooting angles in his favor, the rewards could really rain down.

System

One major advantage Robbie Findley presents over other forwards is a knowledge of Jason Kreis's management style, his tactical preferences, and what's required in training. The essential pieces of Real Salt Lake's system play strongly into Findley's favor as he looks to pick his career up from its minor slump, and they could well be the key to his finding success at the club once again.

Along with contributing to RealSaltLake.com, Matt Montgomery runs RSL blogs RSL Soapbox and Under the Crossbar. Follow Matt on Twitter @TheCrossbarRSL

16 January 2:48 pm

The news of Robbie Findley's return to Real Salt Lake stirred up so many buried memories in my mind, so many classic moments. The hat-trick against Columbus, the brace against L.A. in his first RSL match, and of course the equalizer against L.A. in the 2009 MLS Cup all come to mind. But my "favorite Findley" moment is this one, his second goal in RSL's 3-0 win at Colorado in October 2009.

Two things make this goal special for me. First, after a beautifully-weighted long ball (attention: Andy Williams sighting here), Findley takes a touch that makes Preston Burpo look silly. Second, he seals the deal with a finish that's much tougher than it looks.

But perhaps the thing that most makes this moment stand out in my mind is not how special the goal was, but how typical it was for Robbie Findley in many ways. How many times did we see him score in situations like this: RSL with a one-goal lead, opponent trying to get forward to find the equalizer, Findley gets in behind the defense using his speed and puts one home? Having a player with his skill set was so useful for putting games away. The last couple of seasons it has felt to me like RSL has taken the lead in plenty of games but has been unable to extend that lead past a single goal, causing a few too many nervous moments late in games. A little bit of research yielded the following numbers: When Robbie Findley was with RSL, 60% of their wins came by margins of two goals or more. In the two seasons since he left, that number is a full 10% lower.

RSL could really use somebody who can hurt opponents who are tired late in matches and taking risks while they search for an equalizer. Let's hope Robbie can bring that element back to Real Salt Lake.

A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and will cover the team for ESPN700 AM

09 January 1:17 pm

Real Salt Lake’s 2013 regular season schedule was released earlier Wednesday, which means it’s time to pull out your best red marker and circle a few dates on the calendar.

Here are a few games that we’re really looking forward to:  

RSL at San Jose Earthquakes, March 3, 8 p.m.  

The Claret-and-Cobalt open the season at defending Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose. RSL has had past success opening its season at San Jose, downing the ‘Quakes in the team’s MLS opener in 2010 and 2011. The team will have revenge on its mind after losing all three of its matches against the ‘Quakes in 2012 by a combined score of 10-2. This should be a great one.

RSL vs. Colorado Rapids, March 16, 3:30 p.m.  

It’s the home opener and the first of three legs in the 2013 Subaru Rocky Mountain Cup series. The Claret-and-Cobalt will be looking to get off on the right foot at Rio Tinto as the team goes for its seventh-straight RMC.

RSL vs. Seattle Sounders FC, March 30, 7 p.m.

It’s been two months, but RSL’s playoff elimination at the hands of Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium in November still stings. The Claret-and-Cobalt’s first chance to get the Sounders back comes on March 30 at Rio Tinto Stadium. The RioT will undoubtedly be rocking for that one.

RSL vs. San Jose Earthquakes, June 1, 7:30 p.m. –  RSL vs. Los Angeles Galaxy, June 8, 7:30 p.m. – RSL vs. Seattle Sounders FC, June 22, 7:30 p.m.

The first three weeks of June will be absolutely huge for RSL, which will host Western Conference Powers San Jose, LA and Seattle on June 1, 8 and 22, respectively. Some major moving and shaking in the West table will be done during these games – hopefully RSL will come out on top in all three.

RSL at New York Red Bulls, July 27, 5 p.m.

The Claret-and-Cobalt will get its first and only crack of 2013 at former RSL players Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola on July 27 at Red Bull Arena. Sadly, the Red Bulls won’t make the return trip to Utah in the 2013 regular season. They’ll be back in 2014.

RSL at Colorado Rapids, Aug. 3, 7 p.m. 

Leg three of the 2013 Subaru Rocky Mountain Cup. Could be a winner take all type match as RSL looks for its seventh-straight Cup. Already psyched to see the traveling faithful take over Dick's Sporting Goods Park. 

RSL vs. Portland Timbers, Aug. 30, 8 p.m.

Former RSL midfielder Will Johnson will return to Rio Tinto Stadium for the first and only time of the 2013 regular season on Aug. 30. The national television audience will get a great view of what will likely be a very nice reception given to Will by the RSL faithful.

RSL vs. Chivas USA, Oct. 23, 7 p.m.

Chivas USA isn’t RSL’s biggest opponent by any means, but the Oct. 23 match at Rio Tinto Stadium is the regular season finale. It’ll be a great celebration of RSL’s inevitable Supporters’ Shield win. Make sure you get your tickets now. 

08 January 11:21 am

A lot of Real Salt Lake fans probably found themselves smiling when Jurgen Klinsmann announced that his January training camp roster would include RSL outside back Tony Beltran. This means that, as training camp gets underway in earnest today, Beltran will find himself donning the stars and stripes for the full national team for the first time (he previously played for the U.S. at several youth levels).

At this point he is probably a long shot to make the team that will play at Honduras in a World Cup Qualifier on Feb. 6, but this call definitely serves notice that Tony's hard work and success for RSL has not gone unnoticed. Reading between the lines, it also provides a bit of vindication for Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey, who thumbed their noses at conventional wisdom when they drafted Beltran back in 2008.

I remember that day well; I was watching the draft live from the RSL office in Trolley Corners with a handful of fans and staffers when RSL's first pick came around. With baited breath we all waited to hear what our new coach and new GM would do with their first draft pick ever. As Commissioner Garber said that with the third pick in the draft, Real Salt Lake select Tony Beltran from UCLA, a collective "who?" went up from the crowd. I had seen Tony play in person once before (at a U-20 World Cup game in Montreal), but I still had reservations. I wasn't the only one - soccer pundits around the country immediately opined that Beltran could have been had much lower in such a deep draft, maybe even with RSL's next pick at #14 overall, which RSL would end up using on David Horst.

Over the next few years, the wisdom of that selection became apparent as Beltran steadily increased his impact on RSL. As the "experts" began to see the genius of the choice, eventually the unconventional methods Kreis and Lagerwey use to evaluate draft picks came to light. For example, they conduct a sit-down interview with every potential draft pick on their radar - sometimes over 50 players. Kreis once told me that he was impressed by Beltran because he wore a suit to his interview. What their methods revealed is that the men in charge of RSL don't care just about a player having a certain set of soccer skills, but also what kind of person that player is. In hindsight, the selection of Beltran made such a splash around the league that today almost every MLS club also does sit-down interviews with potential draftees.

The odds are pretty good that we'll see Beltran get capped for the Nats in the near future. The January camp roster will take on Canada in a friendly match in Houston on Jan. 29, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tony takes the field in that game.

He has a bit more work to do to get in with the "A" national team - hence his being a long shot for the Feb. 6 match at Honduras - but he does have the benefit of playing outside back. That's been one of the U.S.'s weakest positions for quite some time, so Klinsmann is more likely to have an open mind toward changing things up and there's less of an established pecking order. Steve Cherundolo is one name you can probably pencil in at right back, but nobody else in the pool has really separated themselves from the rest. This means Beltran will go in with the opportunity to make his presence felt. After the U.S. roster was announced, he said "I go into camp as I do anything in life, ready to learn and work hard." And knowing what Salt Lake fans know about Tony, we can be certain he'll do both.

A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and will cover the team for ESPN700 AM.

08 January 11:13 am

The MLSsoccer.com crew put together a very nice video recap of Monday night's "Soccer Night in Newtown" event. Give it a watch - it's well worth your time. 

06 January 1:21 pm

It's been quite a busy Sunday for RSL, with the big announcement that Tony Beltran and Kyle Beckerman were called up to the U.S. National Team for its January training camp dropping just before noon in Salt Lake. 

Beltran's and Beckerman's call ups aren't Sunday's only RSL-related news, however - a couple of other nuggets bear repeating, too. 

First up is the report from Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl on Fox Soccer's Goals on Sunday that Rio Tinto Stadium is one of three finalists - along with Kansas City and Denver - to host the U.S.'s Hexagonal home opener against Costa Rica on March 22. The U.S. hosted a Hexagonal match at Rio Tinto in 2009, with the Yanks downing El Salvador 2-1 in Sandy. Hosting a second qualifer at the RioT would be a dream, especially when you consider that RSL's Beckerman, goalie Nick Rimando and Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio would likely be involved in the match. U.S. Soccer will announce which stadium will host the game this week. 

Goals on Sunday host Rob Stone dropped the other RSL-related nugget, reporting that Rimando was invited to the January U.S. camp, but was held out due to injury precaution.

Let's hope for that March qualifier and a speedy recovery for Rimando. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday. 

03 January 4:17 pm

Real Salt Lake signed defender/midfielder Lovel Palmer on Thursday, inking the Jamaican international to a contract about three weeks after selecting him in Stage 2 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft.

Palmer has lined up against RSL six times in Major League Soccer, playing against the Claret-and-Cobalt three times each for Houston and Portland. Interestingly, Palmer played one match against Real Salt Lake before he came to MLS, donning the armband and scoring a goal for Jamaican side Harbour View in a 1-1 draw in a friendly match on Aug. 24, 2005 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Former RSL defender Nelson Akwari scored the Claret-and-Cobalt's lone goal in that match. 

Sadly, I couldn’t manage to dig up a very descriptive account of the then 21-year-old Palmer’s goal. The best I found came from The Salt Lake Tribune, which said that the strike came “on a breakaway, and got a cheer from a smattering of Jamaican supporters spread throughout an announced crowd of 6,240.”

21 December 1:02 pm

Happy Holidays from all of us here at Real Salt Lake!

We sincerely hope that you and yours have a joyous Holiday season. Thanks for all of your fantastic support in 2012. We're already looking forward to having you all back for another great year in 2013. 

18 December 12:43 pm

RSL fans got an early Christmas present today from MLS HQ as the league announced the first three games of RSL's 2013 season. But the league's gift may seem more like a lump of coal to Head Coach Jason Kreis - if he had any hopes of slowly easing his somewhat retooled team into league play, the schedule makers certainly didn't oblige. 

The Claret-and-Cobalt will open its ninth campaign on Sunday, March 3 on the road at the San Jose Earthquakes. If you're suddenly having deja vu, it's because RSL opened both the 2010 (a 3-0 win) and 2011 (a 1-0 win) seasons at San Jose as well.

This game promises to give RSL a stern test right away - the 'Quakes were the 2012 MLS Supporter's Shield winners, and despite being shocked by eventual MLS Cup champion L.A. Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs, this team was quality all year. The 2013 edition of San Jose will likely be just as dangerous as they plan to keep their core group together and make another run at multiple trophies. This game will provide an immediate test for RSL's back line sans Jamison Olave. League MVP Chris Wondolowski torched RSL a few times last season, but then again, Wondo torched pretty much everyone in league on his way to one of the most scintillating individual seasons in MLS history. But for RSL observers, this game will serve as an immediate litmus test to show how good this "new" RSL team really is.

Things don't get much easier in Week 2 as RSL will travel to Washington to take on Ben Olsen's D.C. United. Olsen is the latest retired MLS star to take the reins of the franchise he played for and quickly turn them into a contender. D.C. rose in 2012 to third in MLS in the regular season table and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals where they were bounced by the Houston Dynamo. Like San Jose, United is a team clearly trending the right direction, so expect Olsen to do only minor tweaking this offseason as he seeks to take the next step. This is another potential "statement" game for RSL and we should get a good look at where they are in all facets of the game as D.C. is one of the more balanced teams in the league. Finally, cross-country travel is never a good thing, but it might be better to get this trip out of the way before the team gets road-weary later in the year.

The home opener at Rio Tinto won't come until March 16th (Thanks, “Greatest Snow on Earth”) when RSL will face its Rocky Mountain Cup rival, the Colorado Rapids. It's difficult to say how good Colorado will be next year. After struggling mightily in 2012, head coach Oscar Pareja is looking at a major rebuild as he tries to get the Rapids back into the thick of things. Already this offseason he has cast off major contributors Conor Casey and Tyrone Marshall, brought in Edson Buddle, and there will likely be more changes coming. But regardless, it's difficult to bet against RSL in a home opener no matter who the opponent is. As this will be the first chance most RSL fans have to see their team in person, you can't ask for a better match than this one.

2013 promises to be an exciting campaign right from the start. March 3rd can't get here fast enough!

A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and will cover the team for ESPN700 AM.