Rookies are not the only ones who are spending the preseason getting a crash course in the Real Salt Lake brand of soccer.
This month and next also mark a fresh start for fifth-year forward Abe Thompson and third-year defender Rauwshan McKenzie. Both players were added to the RSL roster in the offseason. Salt Lake claimed Thompson back in November in the MLS waiver draft after the Houston Dynamo let him go. And RSL added McKenzie off waivers just a week ago after he was released by the Kansas City Wizards.
Both players got their first look at their new coaches and teammates when the Utah side held its first preseason practices in Park City last week. Now, as Real train in Arizona through the end of the month, both McKenzie and Thompson are hoping to make a good first impression.
At a minimum, both players are eager to prove they belong with their new team.
"It's a great opportunity," McKenzie said. "Coming to the defending champs, you couldn't ask for anything more. I just count my blessings right now. Hopefully everything works out. I'm going to try my hardest to make this team."
McKenzie already knows will face some stiff competition in his efforts to carve out a role on the backline.
The former Michigan State standout played at center back when he was with the Wizards -- a position already filled in the starting 11 by veterans Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave. One thing playing in McKenzie's favor is that he did play at right back for three years with the Spartans and could likely move over to that spot again for RSL.
Regardless of what transpires, McKenzie feels confident that battling players like Borchers and Olave for playing time can only help him elevate his own game.
"Good competition is always great," McKenzie said. "I can do nothing but learn from good players like that and try improve myself so that maybe I can put myself in their shoes."
If he can crack the regular defensive rotation, McKenzie offers some physicality that would fit in with what Olave and Borchers bring to the pitch. He is strong on the ball and good in the air.
The primary drawback may be his limited playing time with the Wizards. In two years at Kansas City, McKenzie saw action in just five games -- though he went a full 90 minutes in each one.
Thompson, on the other hand, could get a chance to make a contribution much quicker. RSL acquired him as part of an effort to fill the void left up top by the offseason departure of Yura Movsisyan.
In 89 MLS games, Thompson has notched 15 goals and 12 assists. His best season came in 2007 with FC Dallas. That season, he tallied a career-high five goals and four assists while appearing in 24 games and making 15 starts.
When Thompson finished his college career at Maryland, he had scored 43 goals and dished out 26 assists. He hopes to bring a similar nose for the ball to RSL this season. And Thompson hopes that he can help fill the absence of Movsisyan.
"I know he was a big contributor for them last season and in seasons previous to last season," Thompson said. "The best I can do is try and help (continue) the contributions he made for the team."
Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis likes what he has seen from the newcomers early in the preseason. Fitting them in should be made easier by the fact that much of the core group that contributed to the success of RSL a year ago remains in the fold.
It continues the continuity that Kreis first sought to achieve when he was elevated to head coach back in 2007.
"This, for me, is the third year of having this group together and this, for me, should be the most successful year we've had," Kreis said.
Both Thompson and McKenzie are determined to play a part in helping their new team build on its MLS Cup winning season in 2010.
"We're trying to defend the title that they won last season," Thompson said. "I know that all the other teams when they look at Salt Lake, there's a target on our back. My job is to help defend the title that was won last season."