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.
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.
Just in case you missed it in today's News Stand, here's video of blind RSL fan Kuha'o Case playing "Believe" on the keyboard. Watch it - it's awesome.
According to the YouTube description of the video, Kuha'o has been blind since infancy and taught himself how to play the piano about three years ago. He plays the RSL anthem in a variety of styles, tapping the keys for a total of 3 minutes, 29 seconds.
If all of that isn't enough, here's a video of Kuha'o playing Psy's hit "Gangnam Style." He had only listened to the song twice before playing it. His video has over 300,000 views. Amazing.
If you missed Real Salt Lake Winterfest at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, you missed a great Q&A session with Claret-and-Cobalt General Manager Garth Lagerwey.
Lagerwey on Saturday discussed RSL’s 2012 season, the big roster moves the team made last Monday and his expectations for 2013. We’ve taken the time to list a few highlights from the Q&A, which can be viewed in its entirety above.
Top priority: Sign players capable of scoring in the biggest moments
Lagerwey talked at length on Saturday about RSL’s struggles to score in its biggest home matches over the years.
The team didn’t score at Rio Tinto Stadium in the 2012 playoffs, the 2012 CONCACAF Champions League Group Stage finale, the 2011 CCL Final or the 2008 Eastern Conference Final. RSL did score a lone goal in the home leg of its 2010 playoff series against Dallas, but that wasn’t enough to put the team through to the next round.
"Five games, the five biggest games in the history of this building, we've scored one goal," Lagerwey said.
That striking statistic has Lagerwey looking for new forwards to come in and pair leading-scorer Alvaro Saborio. Expect RSL to look to Central and South America for the new charges.
“If you're going to win the biggest games, especially in a sport like soccer where it's very difficult to score goals, you have to have special players," Lagerwey said. "That doesn't mean big-price stars, but it means guys who are willing to take the responsibility to step up in the biggest moments and say, 'I'm going to score. The team's not going to score, I am.'
“We need to adjust our mentality, and we need to bring in players who are going to accept that responsibility,” he added. “That's the only way we're going to change that pattern of always being pretty good but never being great. Our goal is to be great."
RSL is high on its current group of midfielders
Though the team traded former regular Will Johnson to Portland on Monday, Lagerwey is still very high on Real Salt Lake’s current crop of midfielders.
The RSL GM is obviously comfortable with Kyle Beckerman and Ned Grabavoy and is hopeful that Javier Morales – who is currently out of contract – will return to the club next season. Lagerwey also has big expectations for 19-year-old Luis Gil, who will likely step into Johnson’s role as a full-time starter in 2013.
“If Javier is to come back, we’d have Javi, Kyle and Ned as three lockdown midfielders and Luis Gil who we think the sky is the limit for,” Lagerwey said. “In my opinion, that’s as good a group of starting midfielders that you’re going to find.”
Lagerwey also really likes RSL’s midfield depth, talking on Saturday about how excited he is to see what 2012 reserves Sebastian Velasquez, Yordany Alvarez, Enzo Martinez, David Viana and offseason acquisition Cole Grossman bring to the table in 2013.
“Behind [our starters] it’s not just Sebastian Velasquez, but David Viana, Enzo Martinez,” he said. “We think that Yordany Alvarez, with another year in the system, will be able to play the side of the diamond. And I’ll tell you what, this kid Cole Grossman that we picked up… we’re pretty high on him, too.”
“If two of those guys succeed you’re pretty darn good, so we feel pretty good about our midfielders.”
Losing Will Johnson hurts
While he's excited about RSL's 2013 midfield, it was very clear on Saturday that Lagerwey had a hard time trading Will Johnson.
Johnson, who earns a hefty salary, had been with RSL since 2008, endearing himself to everyone around the team with his trademark hustle and no-nonsense attitude. Lagerwey got a little choked up when explaining the motivation behind sending the Canadian international to Portland.
“Will made a good salary, so we worked with him and said ‘Hey, is there any chance you take a pay cut,’” Lagerwey said. “I’ve never known a player in my life to take a pay cut, so his answer predictably was no. I said ‘We’re getting offers for you at such a level that we have to consider trading you, it’s the only common sense approach.’”
“He understood and asked where they were coming from and we gave him the teams. He said ‘Do you mind if I talk to them and try to work out where the best situation for me is?’ I said ‘Absolutely, if we work together and you tell me which team you really want to go to and that team matches the offers that we have out there then we’re happy to do that.’”
“But Will is a sad one for me,” Lagerwey continued. “He’s one of my favorite players we’ve ever had, but we just got offers that were high enough that we had to consider them. We worked together, it was he and I on the phone, him saying ‘Alright, I’ve talked to everybody I want to go to Portland’ and me telling Portland ‘Ok, if you match then it’s a done deal.’ And we did it. For Will, with a little baby, it was tough for him. It was tough to lose him, but we feel like we did the best we could.”
Lost a bit in the shuffle of Monday’s big trades and option declines was the news that starting defenders Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran both signed contract extensions to stay at Real Salt Lake.
That’s a shame, because the extensions are significant news. Wingert and Beltran were rocks for the Claret-and-Cobalt in 2012, with both players finishing the season in the top-three on RSL in league appearances, league starts and league minutes played.
Both guys are lockdown defenders, solid in possession and constantly improving in the attack. Their returns – along with that of starting center back Nat Borchers – keeps a good amount of continuity on the RSL backline, which lost starter Jamison Olave in a trade with New York on Monday.
That continuity is tactically significant. Wingert and Beltran both know the RSL system incredibly well. Head Coach Jason Kreis won’t need to worry about teaching either of them when to press, when to sit back, where to pop up in support or when to bomb forward like he would with new players.
Both Wingert and Beltran provide stabilizing forces in the locker room. Wingert is RSL’s longest tenured field player and Beltran has been around since the 2008 SuperDraft. They’re both easy to get along with, both of them work very hard and both set good examples for their teammates.
Make no mistake: Wingert and Beltran returning for 2013 and beyond is a big deal. They’ve been around for all of the team’s past successes and will undoubtedly play important roles in the Claret-and-Cobalt’s next generation.
We all knew changes were inevitable for RSL this offseason, but that doesn't make it an easy pill to swallow when the changes actually happen.
With the news Monday that three members of the RSL core were traded for allocation money, that pill turned out to be quite bitter. Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Jamison Olave were key contributors on the field and well-liked off it. But sports, of course, are a business which means sometimes changes have to be made.
So why these three? Well, as much as I hate saying it, in this case it really boils down to the money.
Many MLS contracts are structured as back-loaded deals that give players large raises as the years go by. That means RSL would have been significantly over the league's salary cap in 2013, putting the team in the unenviable position of having to jettison some highly-paid players yet not have a major drop-off in production at the vacated spots. By making these trades, RSL was able to clear seven figures off of its cap. That is why Olave, Johnson, and Espindola are on the move.
Olave is, in my opinion, still the best center back in the league when he's healthy. Unfortunately he was injury-plagued his last two years at RSL, his minutes going from 2413 to 2128 to 1734 from 2010-2012. With his salary steadily increasing throughout that time, it made sense to move Olave. Plus, he plays a position where RSL is stocked: Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, and Kwame Watson-Siriboe are all starter-quality center backs, and Chris Wingert can slide over in a pinch.
Johnson was a favorite of many thanks to his tireless work rate. But again, he is a highly-paid player at a position where RSL has lots of options: There are no less than five exciting young players who can play that position and have frankly earned more playing time. Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez, David Viana, Enzo Martinez, and Cole Grossman are all exciting, dynamic young players who deserve a shot, and Jason Kreis is going to give them their due. The finite number of minutes to be split among so many players may have left Johnson as the odd man out.
Espindola is another player who "worked for the shirt" and wore his emotions on his sleeves. Sometimes, though, his emotion was his undoing as he tended to get discouraged and take himself out of games. He was always a streaky player who went through long scoring droughts at times. Seeing the need to balance the scoring load and give Alvaro Saborio some relief, the team elected to move Espindola while his trade value is high. As GM Garth Lagerwey said on Monday, RSL will certainly hit the open market for a forward or two. The allocation money RSL got from these trades should be enough to secure the services of at least one quality striker.
Olave, Johnson and Espindola will all be missed. They each meant a great deal to RSL over the years. But their trades mean a lot, too. These were the right moves for RSL, which now has the money and cap flexibility to come back strong in 2013.
This is Jeremy Horton's first piece on RealSaltLake.com. A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy will contribute regularly to RealSaltLake.com and periodically cover the team on ESPN700 AM.
Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey joined ESPN700's “The Bill and Hans Show” on Monday afternoon to discuss RSL’s busy day and look ahead to the rest of the offseason.
The majority of the conversation – which you can listen to in full here – is transcribed below:
On trading Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave to New York for allocation money
“One of the issues that we’ve had as we’ve kept our core together since 2008 is that the cap goes up about 5 percent a year and our player contracts go up more than that. That forces us into decisions of prioritizing who stays and who goes. For the most part, we’ve been able to hold off the day of reckoning on that for a number of years through the way we’ve structured some contracts through some bonuses and some acquisition fees and things like that. But once we hit the end of this year and we weren’t able to qualify for Champions League and we weren’t able to advance in the playoffs it just became clear it was time to try to restructure our salary cap and create some more resources to try to go after some attacking firepower.
Overall the two cases are a little bit different. Fabian has obviously scored 19 goals over the last two years and I think he had something along the order of 10 assists. He was on the All-Star team this year and I think he’ll be very, very difficult to replace and we’ll be looking to go abroad to sign a player to try to do that.
Jamison will also be difficult to replace but we do feel like we have some good young center backs in the fold with Chris Schuler, Kwame Watson-Siriboe and, we haven’t talked about this one yet, but we’ve also acquired a young center back with some pace from Toronto named Aaron Maund. He was Toronto’s first round draft pick last year and we rated him very highly.”
On the thinking behind Monday’s moves
“The idea, the philosophy behind all the moves is to fundamentally restructure our salary cap to setup what will hopefully be another long, successful run and to identify positions where we have good young players who are ready to step up and contribute.
We also want to address what we feel is a key issue going forward which is to acquire more goal scorers. We want to get players on our team in all positions who can score goals in big games. As you know, the team is the star and that remains the case. We’re not talking about going out and getting star, big-name players but we’ve had a number of times now in big games where we weren’t able to get a goal when we absolutely had to have it. The obvious cases there are Herediano at home when a 1-0 win would’ve put us through we don’t score and Seattle in the playoffs with two games without scoring. But we feel like this issue goes back further than that. If you go back to 2011 we had Monterrey at home to win the Champions League, just needing a tie and we lose and don’t score. In the 2010 playoffs we had Dallas at home and any kind of win puts us through and we tie 1-1. In 2009 obviously we won the champ. But in 2008 in the Conference Final at home against New York we lose 1-0. So every example save for one, in the biggest games that we’ve played at home in front of sold-out crowds we have not been able to score a goal and that’s something that we’re seeking to address this offseason.”
On finding forwards this offseason
“We’re looking for more goals out of the midfield as well, but definitely we have to go out now and sign forwards. I don’t rule out trading for a forward, but I suspect that the cost of trading for a forward when you weigh salary plus allocation money we’d have to give up, I suspect you’re going to find a better value if you go out abroad and try and find a forward that way. I think the goal is to try to sign or acquire at least two forwards this offseason.”
On the team’s salary cap situation after Monday’s moves
“By acquiring a lot of allocation money today we’ve affected a seven figure swing from a cap perspective. To be clear we came into this offseason where we knew we had to cut 25 percent of payroll and we have done that. We’re now under the cap and with the all money we’ve acquired through various deals we now have enough we think to go out and acquire a couple of forwards and potentially possibly a third player.”
As our fans see these players moving out through these various trades, it’s important to remember who this core is. Going up the spine of our team you’re still looking at [Nick] Rimando, [Nat] Borchers, [Kyle] Beckerman and [Alvaro] Saborio. And we’re in negotiations with Javier Morales, as well.
What we’re doing right now is tweaking our core. We’re trying to get a little bit younger, but, to be honest with you; it’s all about the right mix of experience and youth. We want to keep the mentors in place to take along and educate our younger players so we can hopefully have a good transition without a big dip in form.”
On what fans should be thinking heading into 2013
"I think they can expect a team that consistently competes for championships. That’s what I pledged to ownership when they hired me and I think we’ve been able to achieve that so far.
Now as we begin to turn the team over, when we trade away Espindola and Olave and have one other potential deal in the works, we’re trading away guys who have been All-Stars, who have been Best XI in the league. It’s disrespectful to those players to claim you’re going to replace them immediately. I think it takes time but again, what I think [Head Coach] Jason [Kreis] and I have done it right is that we’ve built the team in such a way that we have young players that are in positions to succeed if we keep enough good players around them…. We feel that we have a group of four young center backs that are ready to step up and contribute. And I think in midfield we have a number of really exciting young players when you look at Sebastian Velasquez and David Viana and Luis Gil and Yordany Alvarez… and Enzo Martinez….
The goal going forward is also to contend for championships and hopefully we’re able to kind of reset things right now so that we can afford contracts for the long-term and potentially take this tweaking of the core and ride it for multiple years. I think that’s the one thing we really got right going back to 2008 and 2009. We identified a group of players and we stuck with them and we were able to keep them together for a number of years. And through that consistency, through that continuity we were able to keep our style of play and have longer term success. That is what we’re trying to accomplish here. There might be some hiccups, there might be some slipups in the beginning just as there were in 2008 and 2009… but our expectation is to make the playoffs and that’s a goal that we’ll have every year. I’m hopeful that if we handle this transition properly we’ll achieve that.”
On contract negotiations with MF Javier Morales
“With Javier I expect that a resolution will come or not come within the next week or so. I think the other place he might go is Mexico. I think that those teams are now beginning to become active, they just had their final this weekend and those teams are beginning to become active in pursuing players.
It’s always been a question of does Javi want to come back, or does he want to play in Mexico, because if he wants to go to Mexico they’re going to be able to pay him more money than we will. Because of that it’s largely a personal decision from Javier. Of course we want him back, we’re very eager to re-sign him. I actually think that Javi’s family is happy here in Salt Lake and he wants to come back. Of course I obviously can’t speak for Javi and I’m sure his opinion will depend on what his options are, but usually when a player has positive thoughts about coming back and the club wants him back that’s a good environment to complete the deal.”
On Head Coach Jason Kreis’ recent scouting trip to South America
“We identified a number of players and the good news is that Jason agreed with our scouting staff that a lot of these players are pretty good players. Now the hard part comes with figuring out how to afford them.
It’s a question of being patient and finding the right deal, for the right player, for the right price. We can all identify that Messi’s a good player. We can’t all afford that, though. So it’s really finding the right match at the right value and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
On whether RSL will stick with its possession oriented system in 2013
“I think as long as Jason’s the coach of RSL we’re likely to stick with the same system…. Again, we’re not talking about changing out every player on our team. We have made some very significant moves with some very significant players who have been with us for a long time. That is a big deal and it will be difficult to replace those guys, but we still have a number of core players in place and I believe we’ll have enough continuity and veteran leadership within the group to remain successful and to pass our ideals on.
The good news is that a lot of the young guys that we have now have a year or more under their belts. David Viana has had a couple of months, Sebastian Velasquez has had a whole year, Yordany Alvarez has had two years, Enzo Martinez has had a year, [Kenny] Mansally’s had the better part of a year, [Chris] Schuler’s had three years and Kwame [Watson-Siriboe] has had the better part of a year. So when you look at our young guys that are looking to replace some of these guys that we’re moving out, I think now they are better prepared to succeed in year two or three and it would almost do them a disservice to switch the system at this point. I think keeping the same system is going to hopefully reward the hard work that those kids have put in.”
By now you probably know that Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando took home the 2012 MLS Save of the Year for his acrobatic stop on Kansas City forward Kei Kamara in RSL's April 14 game at Sporting.
What you might've missed, however, was Rimando lightheartedly ripping on teammate Nat Borchers when reacting to the honor, thanking his teammate "for losing his man and allowing me to make the save for this year’s award.”
Of course, Nick was only kidding around with Nat. Just gives us all a little window into the fun atmosphere the guys have in the locker room.
Nick's full quote is below:
“Saves are never planned but when you have a chance to help your team it feels great,” Rimando said. “It’s always an honor to be recognized. I also have to thank RSL DF Nat Borchers for losing his man and allowing me to make the save for this year’s award.”
MLS Insider somehow beat us to it - trust us, we're hanging our heads in shame - but big news RSL fans: Claret-and-Cobalt head coach Jason Kreis joined Twitter yesterday.
Make sure you give Jason a follow. We're not sure how long he'll keep his account live, so get in now while the getting's good.