Garth Lagerwey affectionately calls it “RSL 2.0.” Most of his players disagree with that label, since there are enough familiar faces around.
Either way, a new era has come to the Wasatch Front as Real Salt Lake get set to open the season with a starting lineup that may feature as many as seven changes from the one that played through most of 2012.
Why is that remarkable? Old dynasties have to recycle and rebuild all the time. And that’s never easy, as I wrote in this very space nearly 10 months ago.
But few have the level of transparency that RSL do and even fewer readily throw up the white flag and say, “This is as far as we can go with the group we have and it’s time to start over.” And by taking the case study of RSL, it’s a fascinating look into how a team rebuilds around existing stars, makes painful decisions around others and bloods an entirely new crop of guys it hopes will deliver more silverware.
In short, RSL are trying to replicate the same process that found them so much success over the past three seasons, and hoping that lightning strikes twice.
It’s pretty inarguable that RSL have been among the elite of MLS during that time. Their 47 total wins in league play from 2010 through 2012 put them even with Seattle for second-best, just five behind the LA Galaxy. They’re third in combined points over that span, too, trailing only LA and Seattle.
Those are impressive numbers. And yet those other two teams collected a combined seven major trophies during that time frame. The Claret-and-Cobalt? Zero.
“We really felt that from September of 2009 to April 2011, that was the apex,” Lagerwey told MLSsoccer.com last week in preseason camp in Tucson, Ariz. “That was as good as we got, and started the MLS Cup run where we got hot at the end of the [‘09] regular season right in through the playoffs, on through the time when we lose the [2011 CONCACAF] Champions League final and Javi [Morales] gets hurt in the next game. It’s been a little bit of a struggle since then.”
It’s been known for a while that RSL’s GM and head coach Jason Kreis were set to make big changes. Maybe not blowing up the roster, mind you, but making the kinds of moves that a small-market team with finite resources would have to make in order to stay young and competitive.
The big moves were the ones that grabbed the headlines during the offseason: trading away stalwarts Jámison Olave, Fabián Espíndola and Will Johnson in separate deals. There were a couple of splashy moves, too, such as bringing back Robbie Findley after two difficult seasons in England and signing young but raw Colombian striker Olmes García. Lagerwey and Kreis also did their usual in bringing in undervalued MLS players like Joao Plata, Aaron Maund, Khari Stephenson, Lovel Palmer and Cole Grossman.
But very quietly, the rebuild has been done in background over the past two seasons. Sunday’s projected starting lineup at San Jose will attest to that. Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe have been groomed as eventual center-back successors to Olave and the injured Nat Borchers. Kenny Mansally is filling in similarly at left back for the injured Chris Wingert.
Second-year man Sebástian Velásquez or Luis Gil, who returns from U-20 World Cup qualifying, will man the point of the diamond midfield while Morales – somewhat of a surprise returnee for RSL this season – recovers from knee surgery. Both players are young products who have been primed for this exact task.
But you look around the field and you notice something unique: Real Salt Lake aren’t rebuilding by plugging in new players and hoping they all adapt to each others’ skill sets. They’re plugging new players into the existing system and hoping they get similar results.
“You’ve got to have faith that you’ve identified good players and that, over time, those players will emerge and they’ll learn how to play together,” Lagerwey said.
But what follows will be a trial by fire for revamped RSL. They open the season with five of their first seven games on the road, including San Jose on Sunday (8 p.m. MT kick/7:30 p.m. Pregame, CW30) and then D.C. United the following weekend.
And Lagerwey readily admits that by mid-April, RSL may not look like a contender at all given their early challenges.
“We do think we can make the playoffs,” he said. “I think we’re eminently capable. But I think it’s critical to understand it’s a long-term plan and that no one panic. ... I don’t think it’s going to be easy. Especially with the inexperience of our guys, you’ve to be patient, you’ve got to believe in it and you’ve got to stick with it.”
It’s been a long time since RSL had a losing record. Four seasons ago, in fact, when the Claret-and-Cobalt finished a game under .500. Of course, they also went to the Conference Championship for a second straight postseason – and upset the heavily favored LA Galaxy in MLS Cup. So if anyone appreciates the value of being the disregarded underdog, it’s Real Salt Lake.
But maybe the bigger question is this: Can you teach a young dog the same old trick?
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.