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.
TUCSON, Ariz. - Real Salt Lake will play its final FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup Group Stage match on Wednesday night, taking on the New England Revolution at 5:00 p.m. MT at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The Claret-and-Cobalt is currently 0-1-1 in the Desert Diamond Cup after tying New York 2-2 last Wednesday and falling to Seattle 1-2 on Saturday. That mark puts RSL in a tie for third-place with the Red Bulls, two points behind second-place New England and five points back of first-place Seattle, which has already clinched a spot in Saturday's DDC Final.
RSL still has a good shot to qualify for the DDC Final against the Sounders. A win over New England on Wednesday night combined with a New York loss or tie to Seattle on Wednesday night would put the Claret-and-Cobalt through. If New York beats Seattle, RSL would need to beat New England and maintain its one goal edge over the Red Bulls in goal differential to advance to Saturday's DDC Final. Should RSL and New York finish tied on points and on goal difference, the team with the most goals scored would advance to the Final.
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis won't be too worried about that, though. He'll be more interested in seeing how his players perform in their penultimate preseason match than he will be in the result.
If he sticks to pattern, Kreis will run out a reserve-heavy starting lineup on Wednesday, playing the group about 60 minutes before bringing in first-teamers to close out the match. The Claret-and-Cobalt regulars should start again on Saturday.
Wednesday's RSL-New England match will be streamed live on both RealSaltLake.com and MLSsoccer.com. The New York-Seattle match will kick off at 7:00 p.m. MT and will also be streamed live on MLSsoccer.com.
TUCSON, Ariz. - Real Salt Lake announced earlier on Tuesday that rookie forward Devon Sandoval has signed with the first team. Sandoval, who trained with RSL for a week last summer, was absolutely thrilled to join the Claret-and-Cobalt, calling signing with the team "a dream come true."
Sandoval had another good anecdote about signing that didn't quite make it into the release:
"I was actually FaceTiming with my girlfriend when I [put pen to paper]," he said. "She wanted to take pictures and everything, so I got my iPad set up and took some pictures of it when I signed."
A self-described family guy, this isn't the first time that Sandoval has used technology to share a big moment with his loved ones. There was a camera rolling at the Sandoval home during the broadcast of MLS SuperDraft and - predictably - the place went nuts when RSL selected Devon. We're still trying to track down that video. Figure it'd make for pretty good viewing.
TUCSON, Ariz. - Injured Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers did his first on-the-ball work of the preseason on Monday, putting his cleats on for the first time and running through some simple cutting and passing drills with RSL's training staff.
Borchers, who had surgery on a tendon in his left quad this offseason, traveled with the Claret-and-Cobalt to Tucson on Feb. 11. Conservative estimates have the veteran center back returning to game action by mid-April. Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe have been the first choice center backs in Borchers' absence, with the pair expected to start RSL's 2013 MLS regular season opener at defending Supporters' Shield winners San Jose on March 3.
RSL next plays on Wednesday night, when it will take on the New England Revolution at 5:00 p.m. MT at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in the club's final FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup Group Stage match. The match will be streamed live on both RealSaltLake.com and MLSsoccer.com.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil and the U.S. Under-20 national team will kick off the CONCACAF U-20 Championship with a Group A match against Haiti on Monday. U.S. Soccer produced a solid video preview of the tournament featuring Gil and U-20 Head Coach Tab Ramos.
Check out the video above and make sure to tune in to Fox Soccer Channel at 4:30 p.m. MT to see Gil and the U-20's take on Haiti.
Although Saturday's 1-2 loss to Seattle in the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup was perhaps a bit disappointing, there are some interesting points to be taken from the deployments of RSL's midfielders and forwards.
Flattening the diamond
With Ned Grabavoy as the point man in the midfield diamond, the look changes rather significantly. This is, I think, by design. The wider players in the diamond — in this case, Sebastian Velasquez and Yordany Alvarez — pushed up to be nearly level with Grabavoy.
This enforced a more flat top of the diamond — especially in comparison to a Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Ned Grabavoy triumvirate in front of Kyle Beckerman. Creativity came from all three players in basically equal measure. With Grabavoy at times dropping deeper than Velasquez and Alvarez, the system almost took on a less diamond-looking approach, too.
It's notable because it helps destabilize the notion that Jason Kreis is a strict tactician who refuses to vary his approach. It was a bit subtle, but we see something a bit more untested with Grabavoy up top there.
Alongside the flattening of the diamond come some interesting decisions on player placement. It starts of course with Grabavoy in the top of the diamond, where he plays well as a linking distributor and less that magician. It continues: Yordany Alvarez on the side of the diamond, where he looked surprisingly creative, and Enzo Martinez in the deep-lying role, where he looks more of a playmaker than a destroyer, are the two standouts.
But tossing David Viana up top in the 75th minute is interesting, too: Robbie Findley, still being rested, remains uninvolved, and getting at least a player in the forward position was necessary. It's clearly not Viana's best position, but his ability to run at players with the ball at his feet and beat them on the dribble changes the dynamic of matches. It's something that, after the departure of Fabian Espindola, our current group of forwards lacks — except maybe Olmes Garcia, the unknown quantity — and having that tactical flexibility is essential.
It's a bit strange when the ostensibly first-team players are having trouble scoring goals, but it's what's out there right now. With that set of players — or something resembling that set — we've scored just once since since Oct. 6 against the LA Galaxy, and that was from Ned Grabavoy against the … LA Galaxy in a preseason match on Feb. 8. It's not a pressing issue, but it's one to scratch one's head about. If it continues into the season, there will be trouble, but that's a rather big "if" at this point.
It is worth noting that some of these younger guys have looked particularly bright: John Stertzer, Cole Grossman, Joao Plata — they've all looked better than perhaps first expected, and all three have scored goals.