The glory days aren’t gone, they’re just changing their pitch slightly. At least, that’s the message out of Real Salt Lake this offseason.
Everybody’s second favorite team finally decided to sit down and do some surgery on a roster that’s become more famous for the umpteen times they’ve come close than for the one time that they actually got the job done, back in the 2009 MLS Cup. Back then, it seemed like a Real Salt Lake dynasty was, if not exactly inevitable, at least kind of probable. They had a team of guys in their prime, they played a beloved style of possession soccer, and they did so without much of the pretensions that are so common among the “pretty” teams of Europe and South America.
But they never could get that second title. Following that MLS Cup win, they fell one point short of a Supporters’ Shield in 2010. They fell one goal short of FC Dallas in the playoffs that year as well.
And then they fell a goal short vs. Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League final in spring of 2011. They couldn’t get it done in the regular season or playoffs that year either.
Finally, in 2012, the goals just stopped coming all together. RSL went a month without scoring to close out their season, a stretch that also closed out their hopes of advancing to the CCL quarterfinals, of qualifying for the next CCL all together, and of winning a very winnable playoff series against Seattle.
They’ll be using that cash on another goalscorer or two. They’ll be looking for a guy who comes up big in those big moments that have eluded them for the last three years. And they’ll be expecting bigger, better things from the talented stable of youngsters that they’ve been cultivating over the past several seasons.
So does that make 2013 a rebuilding year in Utah? Probably not. Yes, they’re losing three starters, but one of those guys (Olave) will be replaced by a pair of players – Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe– who were blooded and bloodied in the regular season, playoffs and international competition over the past two years. Another (Johnson) has prodigy Luis Gil ready to get to work. So even in the midst of a serious retooling, there’s a lot of continuity at Rio Tinto – 10 of the 11 guys on the pitch, provided Javier Morales puts pen to paper sometime soon, are going to be guys who’ve been around the block.
How they replace Espindola, though, will most likely tell the tale of how well this version 1.2 of the Morales/Kyle Beckerman Claret-and-Cobalt does. They need someone who’ll blend into the scheme of the diamond-four midfield quickly, understanding where and when to flare to the sidelines – Espindola’s specialty, and a space-opening trick that’s helped make Alvaro Saborio one of the league’s most prolific strikers – while still being potent in front of net.
Espindola, for all his workrate and technical ability, was simply unable to get that last job done when it most needed doing. Kreis and Lagerwey have a lot of money to invest in finding a guy who can.
What’s it all mean? Basically, that RSL are trying to get, on balance, two goals better than they’ve been. It doesn’t sound like much, but when there are trophies at stake, it seems like the biggest gap in the world.