Real Salt Lake soccer is characterized by its possession game and the clever, yet careful passing. It is the beautiful game. The midfield has a diamond formation at its base with a strong, stalwart defensive-minded player anchoring the back. Each side having high energy players willing to play 18 to 18, withdraw and defend with class when needed, then offer speed and creativity to move the ball forward on attack. They operate in a careful pattern of triangle passing; maintain possession through to it being passed to the attacking midfielder. At the front of the diamond, the creativity shines, this person is highly-skilled, strong, accurate and most often responsible for delivering the pass to the forwards. Basic theory makes the diamond sound easy, but a constant rotating body of midfielders creates havoc for a defense and many responsibilities for the players. One of the greatest responsibilities is to meet Coach Kreis’ expectations of strong defending while combined with aggressive attacking. It’s a careful combination to play and delivers wonderful success when executed properly. Recruiting the players for this midfield is the challenge.
Real Salt Lake has arguably one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS in Kyle Beckerman. Not only does he anchor this midfield he also is the captain and spirit of the team. Much of RSL’s organization originates with Kyle and he has clearly established himself as a leader; not only for RSL but also to recently captain the US Men’s National Team. In Kyle’s absence, RSL has found a very worthy competitor in Yordanny Alavarez. Alavarez’s tough play at the back has made him the regular replacement should Kyle need a rest or is unavailable. With the foundation of the diamond set, it’s the remaining pieces that leave a bigger question mark.
Playing the wing in the diamond formation is a tough assignment under Jason Kreis. Kreis fully expects these players to not only attack aggressively but to also quickly withdraw and defend defiantly. The defense is often the bigger key to Kreis’ play and the expectation to hustle on defense will be key to achieving playing time in this system. Over the last couple of seasons Ned Grabavoy has learned to excel in this system. On defense he holds his ground strong, aggressive into the tackle and demonstrates confidence on the ball. He trails back, gains possession and changes momentum for RSL often. In the attack, he has a particularly good eye for the through ball. Timing his passes has been key many times and with the added speed up front will be seen many times to come through the season. Based on the availability of players, production and ability to meet Kreis’s expectations, it would be assumed Grabavoy will be a regular in the first eleven. Availability is a big issue going into the start of the season as many players have injury. This will certainly complicate decisions for Kreis and company to fill the remaining positions in the midfield.
At the beginning of the 2012 season we saw the young Sebastian Velasquez get some early first team play due to injury issues. In his first couple of matches, he played with a lot of class, to include a very impressive performance over league star Landon Donovan. Between suffering an injury himself and the return of the regulars, he struggled to see much time through the remainder of the season. This year he expects something different. Through the little preseason footage we have seen, a creative Velasquez is often featured over the ball, holding possession with clever footwork and finding the open player. His contributions this season hope to be much higher and after a full year in the system and being healthy I would expect his presence to be seen. With Javier Morales out for injury for the time being, he offers a creative perspective in the attack. However, availability of players may limit this opportunity. Velasquez offers a better defensive skill set than many of his colleagues and may necessitate him filling the other wing in the diamond. Going into the season early, it is possible this will be his role. Sebastian’s style of play is unique though he will primarily compete with another young man for play.
Luis Gil has been with Real Salt Lake for three years now, seems odd when you consider he is only 19 years old. The talented midfielder will offer another great solution at the other wing or attacking midfielder option. Stronger and more confident, Luis is quickly shaping up as one of the better midfielders in the US. With 33 starts before his 19th birthday for one of the best teams in MLS is a great testament to his effort, however he also has a commitment to the US U-20 National Team. Gil will likely be missing considerable time throughout the season with his national commitment; in the meantime he will surely be a regular in the first team. Gil has played attacking mid, midfielder and as a forward. His skills are great but over the last few games his role as midfielder may be strongest. Luis will likely have another strong year for the Claret and Cobalt, though in his absence where will Jason look?
I have spoken of David Viana as a forward, though he also possesses great skills as a midfielder. His on-the-ball creativity and use of space will offer great possibilities in the attacking run of play. However, from previous experiences Viana has a weaker defensive game which does not fit into Kreis’ role as a midfielder. This weakness will likely make him a better fit for the attacking midfield position should he see time in the midfield. He will be able to utilize his skills to control the tempo upfront and feed the forwards clever through balls for scoring opportunities. However, this weakness may also limit his time in the starting eleven early in the season. Fortunately, Garth Lagerway and Jason Kreis have a lot of midfielders in camp.
Last year, RSL’s first pick of the draft went to highly touted midfielder Enzo Martinez. However, Martinez was unable to break into first team play as he struggled to find his place in Kreis’ system. This year he will want to change this for sure or his future with RSL will certainly be limited. In Friday’s preseason game Martinez came in for Velasquez in the attacking role. Through the highlights there were a couple times where Enzo was able to get forward and cross the ball into the box though no one connected with it. There still is not a lot coming from camp about him and it leaves me questioning his ability to break the first team. He will have to make a big impression during the final phase of preseason to impress Kreis and company. Outside of these players many new players have been signed or brought in on trial.
Among these players is Cole Grossman. Grossman previously played two seasons with the Columbus Crew. While Cole brings MLS experience, he is not familiar with the RSL system. His past experience will serve him well with a chance to make the roster, though he will have a lot to prove during this preseason. Along with him is John Stertzer, a Maryland product selected in the 2013 draft. Stertzer is an athletic midfielder who possesses speed and the ability to make a quick impression by putting pressure on the regulars. He will face the same challenges faced by Martinez coming out of college. His ability to break into the first eleven will be difficult, though I expect he may see playing time this season. In addition to these signings is trialist Khari Stephenson seen in the last week of preseason. Khari is a familiar face playing with San Jose most recently. In a youthful move for RSL this trialist seems out of place given Khari is 32-years-old. He was given the start in Friday’s preseason match, but the extent of his trial remains to be seen. I’ll hold judgment until this next week of preseason is complete. I think we will have much more information over the next week as the preseason games are streamed and skills can be more clearly assessed. Until then we can speculate on what RSL’s midfield may look like.
I think it is a given that Kyle Beckerman will be anchoring the midfield as the defensive midfielder. Ned Grabavoy will fill the role of one of the wings. With Gil out for U-20 qualifiers until March 3rd and Javier Morales out for what will likely be the end of March the other two positions are a little more interesting. I personally like the option of Sebastian Velasquez at the attacking midfield option, and I think Kreis will put him there based on preseason matches. I think Kreis will go consertive with the final position at midfield and put the experienced Cole Grossman in that place. If Khari Stephenson is signed, I will expect him to be starting in that place instead. So I have Beckerman, Grabavoy, Grossman and Velasquez as starters for the match Wednesday against New York.