2011 was a year of great emotional swings for Real Salt Lake. They started the season as "the team" in the league. They proved this in the opening weeks of league play. Then they looked to broaden that label to not only the league, but the region. That CONCACAF Champions League final series between RSL and Monterrey will live in the minds of RSL fans for quite some time, probably forever. It was, in hindsight, an epitome of the season as a whole. Falling short in so many different tournaments was the mantra of RSL. They were a team many feared, but at the end of the day RSL didn't add a single trophy (save the RMC) to their collection.
2011 was a great season, don't get me wrong. It was a joy to watch the team overcome great obstacles and still fight for the top prizes. It was, at the same time, very exhausting and a bit disappointing. This wasn't only the feeling of the fans, but it seems to be how many of the players and staff felt as well. 2011 was a season to remember, but also a season to forget. It's strange to say, but it makes sense if you experienced it. There were so many highs but also so many lows and separating the two is impossible. The joy of reaching the CCL Final has to also be mentioned in the gloom of watching Monterrey win at the RioT. Watching Javi return to the pitch also has to be associated with his horrific injury. Dismantling Seattle in the playoffs has to also be associated with losing an injury plagued match in LA. etc etc. 2011 was almost equally as depressing as it was exciting. The good was always tainted with the bad, no matter the scenario.
The question thus for 2012 is "what will change". Will RSL continue to be a top team in the league but fall short? Will they take a step back? After a couple of years of being near the top, history would suggest that keeping this high profile is something not very likely to happen. Or, will they defy those odds, and not only continue to be a top team, but rise to the very top and bring some trophies to Salt Lake? It's hard to answer this, obviously, but many can speculate.
Additions and subtractions from the team have been plentiful this year. While the core of the team has remained very much intact, the depth of this team has taken on a completely new image. In the past two years RSL looked to keep pat with their personnel from top to bottom. A few minor changes here and there, but mostly the team looked exactly the same. 2012 is different. Numerous players have been traded, let go, or retired and thus made the depth for RSL 2012 a bit of a mystery. Has RSL brought in enough pieces, and more importantly the right pieces, to not only restore what those players gone added to the team, but also improve upon it? That question can't be answered for quite some time, but a look at each of the pieces can give us an idea.
Robbie Russel - Traded to DC United
- Russell was a key component of RSL's defense in 2011. The guy started multiple games and made it so that the rotation of the 3 outside backs kept our defense somewhat fresh (injuries hampered that). Russell was also aging quite a bit. His legs weren't all the way there, his marking was suspect at times, and his speed dwindled on a daily basis. Losing him will sting, but the Russell we had at the end of 2011 was nothing like the Russell we had come to expect.
Andy Williams - Retired
- Andy was the last remaining original player for RSL. I, along with many others, were hopeful that he had at least one more season in him. This was not only for soccer reasons, but so that he could get the respectful sendoff he deserved. Sadly, with the salary cap crunch, Andy was forced into an awkward situation. I am very glad it worked out in a way that he was able to stick around. However, I'm sad that I won't be able to cheer #77 on the pitch. Losing Andy wasn't just an emotional blow, though. The guy brought a lot of leadership and veteran qualities that are going to be incredibly difficult to replace. He wasn't supposed to be a regular starter in 2011, but was forced into that with injuries and suspensions. Thus, what we lost on paper (a guy with a lot of starts and minutes in 2011) isn't as bad as it looks. He'll be greatly missed, but it won't be all because of what he brought on the pitch.
Arturo Alvarez - Released
- On paper, Alvarez coming to RSL in 2011 was a huge confidence booster. Then the paper was replaced with actual game time and, well, it was proven wrong. Alvarez was proof that good players can be a bad fit. In our system of play, players like Arturo Alvarez are going to struggle. His inability to play with his right foot and his poor defending skills lead him to be a permanent bench warmer or, even worse, a guy not even in the 18. Alvarez will make a great addition to a team that plays wing attacking soccer and doesn't emphasize team defense. At RSL, though, he won't be missed at all.
Blake Wagner - Released
- Wagner was a mid-season pickup that never really got going. The guy had his chances to prove himself, but fell short badly. The guy will find a job on a lower MLS team at outside back. When he does, we know where to attack that team's defense. Wagner just isn't RSL quality.
Nelson Gonzalez - Loan Option not Extended
- Nelson was one of my hopeful players to make a splash in 2011. The kid has great feet, especially his left, and the ability to slide in and out of spaces with ease. His lack of discipline, however, lead to his demise. He came into the 2011 preseason camp out of shape. Something that will get you right on into Kreis' dog house. Once he finally seemed to be coming around, though, he hit in the injury bug. He never really recovered from this. In the end, it just didn't make sense for RSL to keep the guy. Can't say I blame the staff at all. In the end, we lost nothing in terms of 2011 RSL quality by letting Gonzo go.
Collen Warner - Picked by Montreal in Expansion Draft
- In 2010 Warner was the surprise player for RSL. The kid showed some great glimpses of talent during the season, especially in CCL group play, and looked to be a player for RSL to mold. In 2011, with the injury of Javier Morales, it seemed that Warner's time had come to prove himself. Sadly, he didn't. While a good player, Warner never really took advantage of the opportunities presented to him in 2011. He'll be a starter at Montreal this year, likely, but we won't really be missing anything but occasional late sub minutes by not having him in 2012.
Raushawn McKenzie - Released
- McKenzie was the 4th best CB on a team that carried 4 CB's. While he wasn't a bad player by any regards, he also wasn't a good one. He also was the victim of those 3 CB's in front of him. Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, and Chris Schuler are all very good players. The first 2 are 2 of the best defenders in this league (if not the best). McKenzie was there for training purposes and the occasional bench appearance. Losing him really did nothing to RSL 2012.
- RSL lost 2 guys that started on occasion, 2 guys that didn't pan out despite high hopes, and 2 guys that weren't RSL quality. The losses of Williams and Russell will hurt in 2012, especially early on. Those 2 guys were veteran leaders that knew what was expected of them. However, it was time for RSL to move on.
Eduardo "Lalo" Fernandez - GK, Homegrown
- Lalo is a product of the RSL academy in Arizona. The kid went to Uruguay to play for a club and then returned to the states. He is a homegrown player (thus meaning he won't count against the cap) and one that many say could be great for the club in the future. The key word there is future. Don't expect anything from Lalo this year. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a loan with a lower team is lined up once the season starts.
Leone Cruz - DF, traded for with Seattle
- Cruz is a rather unique situation. While we did trade Seattle for his rights, Cruz has already trained and played in some reserve matches with RSL. Seattle originally drafted him in 2011 but it didn't work out. Seattle released the player (with keeping his rights) midway through the season. RSL was unable to acquire him from Seattle during the season and worked a deal to get him by trading their first supplemental draft pick to Seattle. The guy has the benefit of already having played with RSL and thus his chances of actually sticking are higher. However, if he didn't pan out with Seattle and wasn't a must pickup at the end of last year for RSL, he can't be that amazing. He is likely competing for that CB spot that McKenzie vacated.
Diogo de Almeida - DF, drafted 24th Overall
- Diogo is part of the recruits to hopefully replace Robbie Russell and, more likely, Blake Wagner. An outside back is desperatly needed on this squad, so Almedia's chances of sticking around are a lot higher than other players. I'm not certain on this, but I believe that he has a green card worked out already thus making it so he wouldn't count as an international. Something that RSL, as you'll see this year, is really going to have an issue with in terms of bringing players in.
Enzo Martinez - MF, drafted 17th Overall, Generation Adidas
- Enzo seems to be the perfect RSL player. The kid works hard, doesn't care for the star treatment, loves the passing style game, works hard, has great fitness, and did I mention he works hard? The kid is the RSL/Jason Kreis player. I have a lot of hope for this kid, he could be something very special. Watching his highlight packages and a few games from UNC at the College Cup, I know this kid can be a real addition to the squad. Being realistic, though, is a must. Enzo isn't going to be starting for RSL in 2012 much if at all. He is a project, like many of these guys, but one that has a HUGE upside. If there is one player to be excited about in these additions, it's Enzo.
Benjamin Ubierna - MF, Supplemental Draft
- I can't seem to find much video of Ubierna, but from what I've read and seen he is a bigger midfielder that likes to go down the wings. The theme of a lot of these additions for RSL are speed. Ubierna looks to be the perfect mold of that. His highlight package on mlssoccer.com is pretty lame, but it does show his ability to get in behind the defense and whip in a ball. I doubt this kid will be able to make the final squad, but would love to see more players like him come in on trial in the future.
Sebastian Velazquez - MF, Supplemental Draft
- Velazquez is a very interesting addition for RSL. By most accounts, this kid has a lot of skill on the ball. His size is the obvious issue, among other things, and whether he'll have the ability to stick in this league is a huge question mark. However, it is important to note, the other player that RSL had on their team that was drafted out of junior college was none other than Yura Movsisyan. Sebastian, from all I've read and seen, looks to have enough skill to compete with anybody in this league. How he'll react to being hit by players like Pablow Masterwanky and the entire Houston Dynamo squad is a huge issue. I want the kid to work out. He was on the same youth team as Enzo Martinez and is proof that there are a whole lot more ways to becoming a pro than the typical big club-college-academy routes.
Emiliano Bonfigli - FW, Supplemental Draft
- Bonfigli, like Ubierna, is a player that many overlooked in the draft because of his status as an international. I really like that this kid has experience as a professional already. Having played in Argentina will help him greatly. At the end of the day, though, RSL really has their hands tied with international players. Unless he stands out as an amazing player at camp, he'll get past up.
- Enzo is the player to be excited about. The rest, and even Enzo to an extent, are projects that likely won't bear much fruit in 2012 (if at all). It's not likely that all of these guys listed above will even be part of the 2012 squad. Those with international status are fighting for essentially one or two open spots.
Samir Bengelloun - DF
- Samir is a trialist for RSL at their preseason camp. He is listed as a winger player on his wiki page. From a highlight video I found of him, he looks to be a speedy left sided player that likes to go forward. RSL only has one or two available international spots, which Bengelloun would require, and thus looks to be a rather unlikely addition for the actual 2012 team.
Wes Knight - MF/DF
- Wes reminds me a lot of Blake Wagner. A defender dropped by Vancouver that has talent, but probably isn't an MLS quality player. Obviously Garth and Jason see something in him, but not being able to stick on the worst defense in the league in 2011 is not a good sign. I doubt anything comes from this guy. His biggest positive is that he won't count as an international player. It looks like he was used as a midfielder much more by Vancouver, but it's doubtful he could crack the RSL midfield.
Terukazu Tanaka - DF
- Tanaka is the product of the trip Garth took to Asia this off-season to scout talent. He is a very unlikely addition to the team as he would require an international slot. Many accounts of him (from J-League watchers) are that he is a decent player but nothing too exciting. Maybe he is a diamond-in-the-rough, but I doubt it. I'll be surprised if he makes the senior squad.
Lewis Neal - MF
- Neal has a very interesting resume. An English player that couldn't really find his way there, bounced over the US. He couldn't land with an MLS team initially, so he tried his luck with Orlando City. He has been one of their better players and looks like he might have the skill to make it in MLS. The issue here, once again, is that he would likely (I'd have to double check) occupy an international slot if added to the team.
Johnny Steele - MF
- Steele is much like Neal. A player from Ireland who couldn't really find a spot there, jumped the pond to the US. In Steele's case, though, this happened all the way back in 2004. He has since played for numerous clubs, both indoor and out, around the country. He has never played for an MLS club and that scares me. If he has been here since '04, he should have been able to find a spot if he had the talent. This looks to be your typical preseason training dummy. Nothing to see here.
- Don't be surprised if not a single one of these players is part of RSL 2012. If by chance one of them does make the squad, also don't be surprised if you never see them suit up for the first team.
- As of right now, just looking on paper, we haven't done much to replace what we lost. It's a scary thought, but RSL honestly didn't add anybody of note this off season. That doesn't mean, though, that this team is going to be worse than last years. While that is a very real possibility, these players are unknown. That blade cuts two ways. They could be great players or they could be awful, we don't really know yet.
I'm hopeful that it'll be a positive year. That these changes were done in an attempt to not only make this team get much younger, but get more fit, more athletic, and most importantly add more speed. The glaring issue from 2011, if I had to pick just one, would be the lack of speed on the squad. Team's defended RSL with an incredibly high line, clogging the middle, and countering down the wings because they knew we didn't have the speed to threaten them. The lose of Robbie Findley killed us in 2011. While Garson won't flat out say it, the objective in 2012 is to not only find a replacement speedy striker (Paulo Junior healthy fits that bill) but to have a lot more speed in the middle to punish team that think they can just clog up our passing lanes and play a high back line.
This team, even without any of the additions, is one of the best in the league.
Our first XI:
Beltran - Olave - Borchers - Wingert
............Grabavoy - Johnson
............Espindola - Saborio
That's a damn good squad.
The obviously issue is depth. With an injury, are we suddenly a completely different team? The salary cap makes it difficult to find high quality replacements, but it doesn't make it impossible.
I'm hopeful that 2012 RSL will be even better than 2011 RSL. This squad, without the pressure of CCL early and a huge target on it's back can thrive.
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