A new journey begins for Real Monarchs SLC on Saturday as the club embarks on its second season in the USL with the kickoff of the 2016 season against St. Louis FC at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Head Coach Freddy Juarez is filled with optimism ahead of the start of the new season, but it’s an educated optimism as the club learned some valuable lessons in its inaugural season that has the team much better prepared for the rigors of the season. The team is also better equipped to handle the season with a better plan in place to cycle Real Salt Lake players in and out of the lineup to keep the first team players sharp and active while also contributing to the on-field success of the USL club.
“We started building a culture last year and kept guys that we felt can contribute on the field and be leaders in the locker room,” Juarez said this week in an interview on ESPN 700 On Frame (here). “The club has really grasped the fact that there is going to be that floating around. That’s what we’re there for and that’s what we’ll do.”
Even without the likely inclusion of several RSL players going on loan to the USL level at various stages, the Monarchs are a much-improved team over the inaugural year. Juarez returns a core that includes Alec Sundly anchoring the midfield, Ricardo Velazco and Eti Tavares in the attack and a solid defensive core. He has also added several players to that mix that should prove to be impactful throughout the year.
Those include Real Salt Lake draft picks Max Lachowecki, Amass Amankona and Connor Sparrow, along with RSL-Arizona Academy product Andrew Brody, USL veteran forward Colin Rolfe and international standouts Elder Torres and Keyvaughn Frater.
Most of those players started off training camp clear back on January 10 with a long preseason that included a trip to Costa Rica, but some have been added along the way, building the momentum toward the start of the new season on Saturday.
“There’s a sense of excitement from the Monarchs players. They’ve had a very long preseason, but we think it’s a critical part of their development,” Juarez said. “RSL is known to win and since I’ve been with the academy they’ve been winners. We don’t expect anything less. We definitely should improve from last year. We think we can get into the playoffs and once you get into the playoffs, you give yourself a chance. We need to be getting ourselves into the playoffs and create that winning mentality.”
To help aid that transition into a winning locker room, the Monarchs also added longtime RSL defender Chris Schuler. Although he won’t be available for the opener while he continues his recovery from a foot injury that ended his 2015 season after playing just five league matches, his presence in training and in the locker room has been a boost for the club.
“Chris has been awesome. He’s definitely a guy that, as a coach, is the type of player you want,” Juarez said. “We’re excited to have him be a leader and I think he’s excited too to be around young guys.”
While the club has several potential standout players, Juarez knows that it will take time on the field together for many of them to emerge as stars in the USL. With the flow in and out of MLS players coming on loan from time to time and the ebbs and flows of the season, Juarez anticipates that different players will shine at different times. With that likelihood, he isn’t going to single out players to watch just yet, but rather let the fans determine their favorites by seeing the club in person at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“They all have their strengths and weaknesses. They’re all quality players,” Juarez smiled. “The fans are in for a treat. After the first couple of games, the players will single themselves out.”