By Coleman Larned (@thesoccerswell)
The abysmal 2015 season for RSL was predicated on the failure to adapt to a new formation and lack of offensive depth. In Jeff Cassar's second season in charge of RSL, the team managed to compile anemic attacking numbers. Transitioning from a 4-4-2 diamond formation that seemingly defined RSL through the Jason Kreis era, the new shape exposed some players that were previously pivotal components to RSL's consistent success in the past.
Both Kyle Beckerman and Joao Plata were sluggish to figure out how to thrive in a new shape and struggled with their new identity, but for different reasons. As Beckerman ages, the expectation is that his motor will slow, his poor first step and general quickness will get even worse, but his game IQ and game management skills will improve. The issue with the attempted 4-3-3 shape is that the single, central midfielder is burdened with a more intense physical workload because of the vertical space that is now only occupied in front by the central forward in the middle channel. Beckerman struggled with the spatial requirements, his significant numbers have been declining for the past three seasons, and was ultimately exposed in the middle of the park.
Set for another terrorizing season in the final third, Plata came back from being injured during the beginning of the season and never found his feet in the new spacing. Although he seemed to thrive in open space, the lack of connection and compactness saw him struggling on isolated islands through many of his appearances.
The RSL defensive line gave up 48 goals during the 2015 season – the 2nd most in the Western Conference. Although they were poor, our xGA numbers actually show that RSL outperformed their expected goals against model per game – which is an even more indicting statistic.
One of the only bright spots was right back Tony Beltran, whose performance earned him his second career all-star selection. They've only brought in one defender during the offseason to add to their current roster. Chris Wingert, who previously had success in RSL before his move to NYCFC was brought back to Salt Lake after a disappointing season in New York. Although Wingert might start, the versatile defender has certainly lost a step and struggles to contain pace.
Cassar needs to sure up one of the Western Conference's worst defensive units through shape and discipline, because I can't see them drastically improving with the current group. Nick Rimando in net is as consistent as they come in MLS, and he will certainly bolster RSL's hope for a season with sub 40 goals against totals.
The midfield is the space where RSL has defined their tempo, and have done so efficiently and intentionally over the years. But, this is where they felt the effects of the changed formation the most. Because of Beckerman's lack of mobility, Luke Mulholland had to continually compensate and sag back into similar spaces, and did so with mediocre success.
After departures in recent years of Will Johnson, Ned Grabavoy and Luis Gil, the midfield is just as thirsty for talent as any phase of the game for RSL – and, it wasn't significantly bolstered either. With only one midfield addition signed that has a chance to fight for a starting spot in Sunny Obayan, trust is clearly being shown internally toward the evolving talents of John Stertzer and Adolfo Ovalle.
Although injuries to significant players stunted the performance of RSL's front three, they were still atrocious. A decline in production from every significant offensive weapon spearheaded one of the league's worst offenses. Well, here it goes: tied for worst GD (-10) in the Western Conference, second least GF (38) in MLS, third worst xGF (1.09) in MLS and the leading scorer, Javier Morales, only contributed eight total goals.
Morales can't continue to be relied upon to carry the majority of the offensive load, as the thirty-six year old showed signs of slowing down at the end of last season. The club understands this, and brought in a friendly face in Yura Movsisyan on loan after a six year tour of Europe. I expect Movsisyan to start and produce goals from the central forward position, probably interchanging with Morales or sliding Morales deeper into a #10 role that suits his skill set better.
A healthy Joao Plata makes everyone happy in Salt Lake and nervous around the league. As one of the most electric and unpredictable players around the league when healthy, he has the potential to score 15 goals and 10 assists from a wing position. I think he settles into his isolated space better in 2016 and delivers the form that the league was exposed to in 2014.
Instead of hitting the panic button and attempting to relieve the pressure through new signings and bold, off season moves, Cassar has trusted his methods to get him out of a hole that RSL hasn't experienced in some time. There is pressure to get back into playoff contention, but I'm not sure if there's enough in the tank for RSL.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, I think the backline is where RSL will struggle. The addition of Movsisyan, the expected improved form of Plata and some promising, trusted talent coming through the ranks will improve the club's offensive abilities, but they're just not strong enough at the back. RSL needed to address a weak central defender pairing in the off season, and it culminated in bringing back Chris Wingert … Chris Wingert?
I foresee RSL jumping up a few places from 9th to 7th, scoring more goals and conceding at the same rate as in 2015 and Cassar ending up being removed from his during the season. I think it might be time to retool in Salt Lake, and this year might be the tinder.