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2010 Real Salt Lake Preview: Defending the title

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 “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.