2010 Real Salt Lake Preview: Defending the title

Champions plan to operate as usual, even if it's not

Robbie Findley, Real Salt Lake

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

The Tweet and Lowdown:  

With success comes
expectation. Real Salt Lake’s fairytale run to the MLS Cup championship means
the bulls-eye is on their back now.

Setting the Scene:  

The history books
will look back at Real Salt Lake’s 2009 campaign and shower the side with
confetti. Championship confetti. From slouching into the playoffs on the last
weekend to lifting the MLS Cup with a penalty-kick victory over Los Angeles,
the season climaxed with a Hollywood ending.

But the
regular-season reality was a little less glittering. Jason Kreis’s team had a
losing record, including a dismal 2-11-2 record on the road. They scored a
measly nine goals away from Rio Tinto Stadium, and the departure of Yura
Movsisyan for Denmark raises more questions about where the goals are going to
come from.

“There is not one
area more than any others where we want to improve,” Kreis told MLSsoccer.com.
“But the obvious ones are our consistency and finding some road form.”

Newly signed Costa
Rica international Álvaro Saborío might provide some relief, but it remains to
be seen how quickly he will adjust to the grind of the MLS season. One
interesting development is the maneuvers RSL pulled off to acquire U.S. youth
international Luis Gil. The crafty playmaker, who was linked to Arsenal in the
winter, is only 16 still but seems to have the makings of a star.

Key changes:

Players in: Álvaro
Saborío (FC Sion, Switzerland), Luis Gil (U.S. youth program), Rauwshan
McKenzie (Michigan State)

Players out: Yura
Movsisyan (Randers, Denmark), Clint Mathis (LA Galaxy), Rachid El Khalifi (out
of contract), Chris Seitz (Philadelphia Union)

Star Attraction: Kyle
Beckerman

If the MLS Cup
final proved anything, it’s that Beckerman is made of stronger stuff than a
well-greased dreadlock. Steady and positionally disciplined, the 27-year-old
captain’s on-the-field leadership was arguably the spark to get RSL back into
the game after going down a goal.

Beckerman is now
on the fringe of the U.S. national team and has an outside chance of going to
South Africa. “He’s on the bubble and needs to prove something to Bob
[Bradley],” Kreis said. “But if any player forgets how important the regular
season is, he won’t make the team.”

Unsung Hero: Nat
Borchers

His play is not
always pretty, but Borchers’ consistency was a work of art on a team that
struggled to find a steady rhythm all last season. The 28-year-old defender started
all 30 matches, and even notched his first goal since 2004, when he was with
the Colorado Rapids. His central partnership with defensive bull Jamison Olave
has proven one of the league’s most stolid and feared, anchoring an organized
and cohesive back four that also features Chris Wingert.

Ready for Primetime: Robbie
Findley

For Findley, it is
all there for the taking. A big, confident opening to the season could book him
a trip to South Africa with the U.S. team, filling the speedy-striker role
opened by Charlie Davies’ injury. The 24-year-old has improved each year,
posting career numbers in 2009: 12 goals, four assists. But in the absence of
his usual strike partner, Movsisyan, how will he adjust when defenses key on
him?

Storylines to Watch:

The MLS Cup trophy
sitting in a display case at Rio Tinto Stadium was a surprise to everyone,
including many of the RSL players themselves (though they might not admit that
in retrospect). Now success is expected. Can this side that never showed signs
of becoming a powerhouse manage the expectations and handle the pressure of
being on top?

“Yes, there are
targets on our back now,” Kreis said. “But we try not to concern ourselves with
that. We’ve built a culture to remain grounded and focused on what we believe. We are not as talented as other teams. Our top players are not
as good as the top players on other teams. But we’re the best team.”

The departed
Movsisyan provided a great deal of cover and energy in attack. Can Saborío pick
up the slack? Argentine Fabian Espindola would like to re-assert himself as a
starting option, as well. His countryman, midfielder Javier Morales, discover a
consistent form if he’s going to remain in the discussion as one of the
league’s best creators.

What he said:

“We have the
potential to be one of the elite teams in the league. It’s time to step
forward.” —head coach Jason Kreis

If everything goes right:

Goalkeeper Nick
Rimando showed his genius on penalty kicks during the playoffs, but eventually
succeeding in a crapshoot will backfire. Kreis seems to have made the right
moves—and non-moves—to cement the team’s core and improve the team’s consistency.
The key, in the end, though, will be the performance of the two players with
the most to gain from club success: Beckerman and Findley. If they play like
they can week in, week out, don’t be surprised to see RSL contending for the
trophy again.