Fifteen Real Salt Lake Storylines for 2015

March 6th, 2015 | by Nephi Henry
Much to look forward to in this 2015 RSL season.

Much to look forward to in this 2015 RSL season.

The 2015 MLS season has arrived. Anyone around MLS knows that this has been an offseason of intense change for RSL, including the loss of core players and a top-notch GM in Garth Lagerway. But there have also been exciting acquisitions, such as the return of Jamison Olave from New York Red Bulls.

So what are the biggest questions for RSL as they begin their quest for hardware in 2015? Here’s a quick overview of what this offseason has meant for the team — I gathered what I consider the fifteen biggest questions and listed them below, in no particular order.

Will Jeff Cassar repeat last season’s success, or even exceed it?

If he doesn’t, fans (and ownership) will likely already start to ask questions about his abilities as head coach. If he does, some will certainly say it’s more a product of the RSL system than of Cassar’s individual capacities. But in the end individual games depend heavily on specific formations, specific personnel choices — decisions ultimately made by Cassar himself. If the success continues, he will have taken a very different set of tools than he had last year and done great work with them. And at that point, folks will need to give credit where credit is due.

How will Houston and Kansas City’s presence in the Western Conference affect RSL?

Over the past five years both of these teams have been regular contenders in the East, and now with NYCFC and Orlando City’s arrival in that conference, the Dynamo and Sporting both shift over. So while that’s great news for the teams they left behind, it’s no question that the already-tight Western Conference has gotten only more difficult. The expansion of the playoffs from ten teams to twelve should give RSL some room to breathe, though, and so should the fact that their club has done some excellent reloading.

How will RSL perform in CCL?

Thanks to the Galaxy’s MLS Cup victory, Real Salt Lake have a berth in the next edition of the CONCACAF Champions League. That comes as a special treat for the club, which despite making it to the MLS Cup Final in 2013 were ruled out of the international tournament due to a rule change before the 2013 season. This year, RSL is younger and faster overall, and Cassar has said his side even better equipped for CONCACAF success than was the 2010-2011 squad that was coming off its MLS Cup win. This season will be RSL and Cassar’s opportunity to gear up for what they hope to be a long CCL run.

How far can Kyle Beckerman lead this team in flux? 

If you’ve ever wondered what Real Salt Lake means to its captain, look no further that that tweet. Rather than taking a call-up from USMNT coach Klinsmann, Beckerman apparently preempted a difficult situation and asked to be left behind so he could provide stability for his team. Of course, the U.S. Men’s National Team should still have at least two RSL representatives in most of its 2015 camps — Nick Rimando and Luis Gil — but after the superb World Cup that Beckerman had for his country, he showed a remarkable dedication to club in his choice to stay behind during the full preseason. That kind of steady leadership should help calm the RSL family’s nerves going into this season of unpredictability.

Jamison Olave is back. Will he and Chris Schuler stay healthy at center back? 

If they do, you’re looking at one of the most intimidating center-back pairings in Major League Soccer. If not, RSL will have to trust that their depth chart is enough. Olave missed time in 2011, 2012 and 2013 with injuries, and Schuler’s 2013 foot injury required surgery that may have kept him out of USMNT service last season.

How can draft picks and post-draft pickups contribute?

Real Salt Lake fans can probably go ahead and be pretty excited about their team’s 2015 draft picks. Boyd Okwuonu, a pass-focused defender from UNC, is an FC Dallas product who appears to really want to be at Salt Lake, which might be a hurdle for other players. He also has a brother living in Salt Lake City, which should ease the transition. As for Jordan Murrell, he was a top-three true left back going into the draft, and RSL picked him up in the third round. And the first time I watched a Lucas Baldin highlight video (thanks for the arrows, USF!) I thought the guy looked like he could play the left side of a diamond à la Luis Gil, though he could also play at the top of the diamond. Either way, I like the look of his play. My take: when (or if) Morales needs to sit a game, maybe we see Gil move to the top and Baldin slot into Gil’s old place on the left. He might also move into that position when Gil is out on USMNT duty.

New signings.

A number of RSL fans have bemoaned the club’s lack of big-name signings, which is easy to do when the likes of Gerrard, Altidore, and Giovinco are coming to MLS (and Lampard, eventually). But after Joao Plata’s breakout 2014 season that left TFC fans wondering what might have been, plus the instant fit that was Luke Mulholland, you can’t help but wonder what’s in store for the likes of Pecka, Demar Phillips, and the signing of center back Elias Vasquez. And speaking of that…

What about new formations?

No one quite knows what new formations RSL will field this season, but both Cassar and Dell Loy Hansen have indicated there will be new looks coming. Cassar couched the idea in terms of recent roster changes, which have included bolstered attacking and defending lines. A 4-3-3 is definitely a possibility, of course, especially if Beckerman is called up for Gold Cup duty. But what about a 4-2-3-1 with Pecka and Beckerman as defensive mids? Anything as adventurous as a three-man back line? A source close to the club tells me that a tactical expansion is part of RSL’s preparation to be more competitive in the CCL. This should be a source of intrigue throughout the season.

What does Gil’s No. 10 mean?

If you’re the kind who’s hanging on every team announcement, this one caught your eye. In 2015, Luis Gil is leaving shirt number 21 and will don the No. 10 for Real Salt Lake. Veteran Robbie Findley wore the playmaker’s number until his departure from RSL this offseason, and he was preceded by Javier Morales in it. Cassar has said that the new number means greater responsibility for Gil, who turned 21 in November. The call has slowly grown for Gil to play at the point of the diamond, where his natural playmaker skills show more easily. Could the No. 10 also be a precursor to Gil atop of the diamond more, should Morales need rest?

How will Real Monarchs affect the club?

2015 will be the inaugural season for Real Monarchs, RSL’s USL Pro team. The new team will offer younger and underutilized players the chance to compete in regular, meaningful matches that will be held at Rio Tinto Stadium until a dedicated venue is built for the team. A number of questions linger about the Monarchs’ inner workings and their relationship to the club’s MLS side, but Real Salt Lake staff have stated that they expect the team to serve as a link between the academy and Major League Soccer. It appears the Monarchs rosters will consist of about two-thirds Real Salt Lake players, with the balance coming from academy personnel. RSL technical director Craig Waibel points out that RSL will see not only player development from the Monarchs, but also the benefit of coaches’ growth into gradually larger responsibilities, as we’ve already see with Freddy Juarez’ shift from RSL-AZ to become the Monarchs’ head coach.

Does Brooks Lennon leave for LFC?

If you haven’t heard of Brooks Lennon, he’s the RSL academy product who scored the winning goal against Germany’s U-18 team, as well as a slew of goals in the weeks surrounding that. I have a hard time keeping track of how many goals the guy scores, to be honest. It’s possible — actually, probable — that Lennon is going to Liverpool. But he’s a truly outstanding product of Grande Sports Academy, and that by itself presents something to be genuinely pleased about if you’re an RSL fan. If the club has already identified and developed talent like that, then I’m guessing there’s more where Lennon came from. The next question would be, is there a way RSL and MLS could sign players young enough that other leagues can’t sweep them away for free?

RSL in 4.5 million more homes = RSL in new markets.

The new local television deal that Real Salt Lake announced Friday will put non-national RSL broadcasts, for free, into every home with access to Sinclair Media Group stations throughout the Intermountain West. Those markets include Boise, Reno, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque, assuming deals are closed for all those cities. That would bring RSL’s potential viewership from about 1 million to 5.5 million total. Equally intriguing were Dell Loy Hansen’s comments to KUTV’s David James during the announcement: RSL will not only broadcast to these cities, but may also sponsor an elite team in each of these new markets and begin exporting the club’s training into the youth programs throughout the region.

Can RSL reach 16,000 season ticket holders?

Despite Kreis’ departure at the end of 2013, last season saw more than 12,000 season tickets sold. The 2015 season has presented fans with even more uncertainty, so how have sales been? It looks like at least 15,000 will be sold this year, with the club’s offices predicting sales as high as 16,000. A jump of 3,000-4,000 from year to year says remarkable things about the growth of the team in Utah and the neighboring region — and about the sport in general. Let’s just say there’s a good reason the club’s staff won this year’s Ticket Sales Team of the Year award.

Will Sunday games bring attendance down?

The new MLS-wide television deal this year includes two Sunday-evening games each week, so networks are requiring Real Salt Lake to host regular-season home games on Sundays for the first time. (The MLS television deal isn’t to be confused with RSL’s regional agreement mentioned above.) Only three Sunday home games are scheduled — March 29, June 7, and June 21 — and all three will be broadcast nationally. It sounds like the club fought hard to keep the number low. Some have expressed concern about attendance issues due to Utah’s high LDS population, and that by extension Rio Tinto Stadium may be a less attractive broadcast option for networks. In 2014, RSL sold out 16-straight matches to close the season, a streak the club would certainly like to keep alive this year.

How will Jason Kreis’ NYCFC side perform?

It isn’t exactly Real Salt Lake news, but if you’re like the rest of the club’s fan base you’ve been watching NYCFC with a little more interest than you have other teams. Kreis’ departure for the Big Apple left scars in Utah, and now the calculating coach appears to have built his new team in RSL’s image, or at least as a hybrid with what Man City’s ownership are pushing on him. With former Salt Lake players Ned Grabavoy, Josh Saunders, Sebastian Velasquez, Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Chris Wingert on board, it’s going to be hard for any RSL fan to not feel some connection to the expansion team. Supporters will be interested to see how those familiar faces do alongside superstars like David Villa and Frank Lampard, as well as U.S. international Mix Diskerud.

Bonus question: Did DLHVision prevent player signings?

In case you haven’t heard, when Dell Loy Hansen saw a huge video board at Levi’s Stadium, he decided to bring one to Rio Tinto Stadium as well. Below are photos of the fully-completed 4,200-foot screen installed by Daktronics, who apparently also built the board that inspired DLH’s (ahem) vision. This new installment will, of course, dwarf the existing screen on the stadium’s north end. RSL fans have argued back and forth about the opportunity cost of the screen, however, with some wondering why the money wasn’t used for a high-profile player signing. Many familiar with the situation insist that DLHVision did not come at the expense of any players the club wanted to add. I side with the latter of those two positions. Either way, the video board will be an impressive addition to Rio Tinto Stadium:

There are more questions than these to chew on as we enter 2015, after so much activity since the end of last season. Gold Cup? Craig Waibel’s new role as technical director? But for me, these are the biggest of the moment for RSL.

Nephi Henry

Nephi Henry

Nephi is an Indiana native living in Provo, Utah. Among his earliest memories of soccer are the 1994 World Cup and the hair of Carlos Valderrama. A French studies major and folklorist at heart, Nephi tends to focus on the broad-strokes cultural trends found in the soccer world.

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