RSL’s Roster Takes Shape

RSL5The Real Salt Lake offseason was spent off-loading players and creating cap space; then, in turn, the preseason has been utilized to explore new potential players. It was strongly noted during the offseason that RSL’s shortfall was largely credited to RSL’s inability to score goals.  This offseason was used to add attacking power and youth. The team is much younger and so far through the preseason has yielded seven goals from seven players.

It has been exciting to see all the new players getting time through the preseason. Of the seven goals, five have been scored by players brought in during the preseason. Joao Plata, Cole Grossman, John Stertzer, Devon Sandoval and Khari Stephenson all have found the back of the net. It’s a refreshing sight to see goals coming from so many players, though it is a little naïve to base progress on goals.

Preseason matches are mostly used to assess player’s interactions, work rate, movement and their ability to operate in the system. The latter is particularly important to Jason Kreis. How each player performs under Kreis dictates largely their chances of make the first team. Let’s take a look at the players left in preseason and figure what they have contributed. Plus we’ll try to determine who will start against the Sounders for the Desert Diamond Cup final and likely San Jose for the season opener.

Kyle Beckerman is the foundation of this club and his presence on the field will typically always be preferred. However, through preseason we have seen a flat group of regulars. Understanding it is sometimes difficult to get excited for a preseason match, Beckerman will have a job to get everyone motivated for upcoming matches. Other veterans will be looked to to energize the squad. Ned Grabavoy hasn’t been a regular through preseason because of injury but certainly has added spark to the regulars. During this last match against New England, Ned fed the final two assists to put RSL ahead. Grabavoy was playing at the top of the diamond as the playmaker, though he didn’t feel comfortable there. In an interview with ESPN 700, Grabavoy explained he is more comfortable playing back in the midfield as he feels like he can defend and attack better from that position.

Veteran Nick Rimando is the wall at the back and little needs to be said about his play.  His position is his, though behind him bigger questions remain. Josh Saunders has been on trial and is a proven veteran from the LA Galaxy. He has received the significant playing time so far and looks as he may be the preferred backup. However, he has not been signed. Lalo Fernandez and Jeff Antinella have received about equal amounts of playing time through the preseason. The young Fernandez looks very capable and offers a lot of promise. Antinella has had a lot of success in NASL, and has received quite a bit of praise for his skills. Personally, I like Fernandez better, but it’s the bias of familiarity. Four keepers are too many on the roster.  I expect RSL to sign Saunders and loan out Antinella. This leaves Rimando, Saunders, and Fernandez as keepers on the roster and likely the preferred order of selection. I would like to note that signing Josh Saunders could have an interesting impact on cap space and could impact his signing.

Without Nat Borchers, there has been a lot of opportunity for competition at center back. Chris Schuler’s performances over the last two years have him firmly solidified as a starter. Next to him throughout the preseason has been Kwame Watson-Siriboe. Kwame has played well in the position with a few minor miscommunications between him and Chris. It’s a growing relationship and will be the most likely starting combination against the Sounders. Behind Schuler and Watson-Siriboe are Carlos Salcedo and Aaron Maund. Maund plays very well in the air and isn’t afraid of difficult 50/50 challenges. He plays his position strong, though he needs to work on his marking. Maund’s ability to turn with an attacker could be cleaner and quicker as well. Carlos Salcedo is a mere 19 years old, although he plays a very mature game. A clear leader on the pitch and doesn’t hesitate to take charge; he is also very talented and confident over the ball and shows energy and willingness in the attack. My observations in preseason see Salcedo strongly competing with Watson-Siriboe and he may even be the better player.

On the wings we have Tony Beltran penciled in as a starter. On the other side, Kenny Mansally has established himself as an athletic full back able to cover the length of the pitch. Lovel Palmer has proven to be a talented player at left back and has had many bright sparks through preseason. His veteran experience is clearly on display having the better of opponents. Palmer had a very exciting match against New England and showed the value he brings to the organization. In Chris Wingert’s absence, a fourth back is in the mix and, as of recent, that has been Rich Balchan.  Balchan has the most work ahead of him and will need to step up his game if he wishes to compete at this level. Balchan could work on closing space quicker, understand assignments and in general improve his knowledge of the RSL system.

Beckerman and Grabavoy will be starting in the midfield for the Claret and Cobalt. The other two spots have considerable competition to be filled. Sebastian Velasquez has played will through preseason. His ball control is impressive and vision is improving every match. For the last preseason match, he was clearly head and shoulders above his peers and commanded RSL’s attack. “Seba” fits in well with the system and makes a convincing argument to play the front of the diamond as an attacking mid.  Velasquez is probably the most creative option while Javier Morales is out. Rookie John Stertzer has made a great impression during the preseason and is seemingly in the action with a high work rate, much like Will Johnson. He plays smart and has a good understanding of the RSL system. Even with his inexperience I expect we’ll see more of him through the season.

More experience can be found in trialist Khari Stephenson. The former San Jose midfielder provides a conservative option for Kreis in the midfield. By conservative, I mean he has a known output. On the field he is aggressive, not afraid to unleash a power kick from thirty-plus yards out. He offers reliable depth to the RSL roster and I believe he would be a solid contributor for RSL, although he does not excite me for the future of this club. Cole Grossman is anther second-chance player looking for his shot after things did not work out for him at Columbus. He has had promising moments on the pitch but really hasn’t stood out as threatening a starting position. The highly touted David Viana is another player that has moments of spark. His ability in attack is undeniable, though he could work more without the ball. In Kreis’ system this could really hinder his chances of seeing first-team action. Enzo Martinez continues to work on breaking into the first team. Enzo has had many opportunities to impress this preseason, but expectations fall a little short. In defense and attack he looks good, but there is something lacking in his complete game.

The complete game is key under Kreis and has been the reason players such as Yordany Alvarez and Luis Gil have done so well. Alvarez firmly has a spot behind Beckerman, though he was tried in the midfield on the wing.  His defensive skills have been displayed numerous times, but his creative offensive attack surprised me. Perhaps Alvarez offers more versatility than first thought. Versatility is probably one of the best words to describe Luis Gil. The 19-year-old in his fourth professional season is high skilled and is very familiar with the RSL way. Once he is done in the U20 World Cup qualifiers, he will return to the starting lineup for Real Salt Lake.

Alvaro Saborio, the second highest goal scorer in the 2012 MLS season, returns to form for Real Salt Lake and will look to lead the group of forwards in the 2013 season. The forwards are mostly a young group, with the exception of Robbie Findley. The speedster has returned to the pitch and demonstrated his speed. I previously questioned his finishing touch, and that question remains to be answered. During this preseason he has failed to convert three one-on-one situations and I wonder still if he can deliver. He will not get many chances with the talent that is competing behind him.

Joao Plata has only been fun and exciting to watch. Aggressive with a nose for goal, his high energy makes him a constant threat to the defense. He has one goal and a blast that led to another thus far. He is very quick and talented over-the-ball skills allow him to create a lot of space in the final third. I think he is very close to having the second forward slot and will push Findley every day. Rookie Devon Sandoval was just signed and the next day delivered a goal. I have spoken of his many near chances and his determination earned him a goal cleaning up a keeper block. The large powerful forward is aggressive in the attack and defense and aims to work hard for every minute of playing time he is given. Hard work pays off and it is fair to say Sandoval will work well in this system and can yield results. Saborio will have significant national team duty and Sandoval will likely receive the call-up to fill in some big shoes.

Newly signed is Olmes Garcia, a 20-year-old Colombian from Deportes Quinido. Garcia exhibits a lot of raw skill and a huge potential upside. He scored five goals in thirty-three appearances for Quinido last season. RSL expects he will need time to acclimate to his new club, country and people, but have a lot of hope going forward.

Back to front, RSL offers some promise for the 2013 MLS season despite low expectations from media.  Saturday’s showdown for the Desert Diamond Cup final may be a little lackluster as RSL’s regulars will face Seattle’s reserves. Hopefully rhythm, chemistry, and passion are exhibited by the starting core. Back to front, I expect we’ll see Rimando, Schuler, Watson-Siriboe, Beltran, Mansally, Beckerman, Grabavoy, Stephenson, Velasquez, Findley and Saborio start the match against Seattle. However, personally I would like to see Salcedo in for Watson-Siriboe, Stertzer in for Stephenson and Plata in for Findley. The biggest expectation I have of this match is a clean sheet posted by RSL.