By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
The last 24 months for Real Salt Lake have been quite the saga. A solid CCL run in early 2016 ended in the semifinals against Tigres, which was followed by a disappointing 2016 season. That was followed by terrible start the 2017 season, but then led to an inprobable late run at the playoffs.
Gone are the years of peak Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando with a magnificent Javier Moralez leading a jewel of an attack. But here again are the days of a potent Real Salt Lake built upon a staunch defense force and skilled playmakers. Much of the cast has changed, but the style has been reborn.
2017 in review
The Jeff Cassar era is an odd one. Setting aside that first season, I don’t know there was a year I was sure he would endure the season. Still, his team averaged 1.37 points per game in 104 games, made the playoffs in two out of three seasons (2014 and 2016), and he was still rather well thought of among the fan base.
But looking at his coaching era (from 2014 to and including his first three games of the 2017 season) RSL had the worst expected goal differential in all of MLS, despite only having a negative one goal differential. This all leads to back my suspicions that during Cassar’s tenure they were a poorly executed side, and what success they had were not as great as the results led us to believe at the time.
The terrible start to 2017 only compounded an already prevalent issue. Cassar’s team gained only one point from the first three games and he was fired before the fourth game. The decision was, as pointed out by Graham Parker, either one of the least thought about firings of a coach or, the theory I subscribe to, something Craig Waibel and owner Dell Loy Hansen had prepared for prior to the season
While I’m sure it was disappointing start to the season for claret and cobalt fans, it was nice to see there was a backup plan in place when 2017 started off poorly. That plan was Mike Petke, who had been hired to coach RSL's USL team, the Royal Monarchs.
The Petke era can be viewed in two parts. The first half of the season where things continued to go poorly, and then the second part where he made some important changes. During the first 14 games in the Petke era RSL had a minus six expected goal differential, only earned 1.14 points per game, and there seemed to be internal disarray in the locker room. The second half of the season was much more promising, as the team spiked to a plus seven expected goal differential (fourth best in MLS in the second half) and increased their points per game up to 1.65, 3rd best in MLS.
One of the more defining traits of the second half was that the team became more efficient in the high press. We can see the passes per defensive actions (PPDA) inside 40 yards, dug up by ASA alum Cris Pannullo, show their consistent pressing numbers over the years.
|Season||Passes||Shots||Passes per Shot|
Examining the last few years we can see that, while they applied a form of pressing, they were ineffectual at turning defensive actions in the attacking third into chances at goal. That changed significantly in 2017 and is big reason why they turned a corner in both the volume of chances created and in limiting their chances against.
The change in pressing efficiency and successful increase in shot quantity boosted the team’s play and elevated them towards an unexpected run at the 6th playoff seed, competing against the crashing wave that was FC Dallas. Unfortunately, even with Dallas and their failings, San Jose managed in the final two weeks to eke out enough points, despite a goal differential of -21.
It was a very unstory book like ending for Salt Lake in 2017. But perhaps we should be viewing it less as an ending and instead look at it as a new beginning. The franchise obviously spent a lot of time and effort during the season to right a once very dominate organization even in the midst of all the turmoil and set things straight.
2018 Roster Rebuild
The first move of the 2018 offseason for was securing Petke for the long haul. It was a premium move considering the drastic improvement the team saw after his arrival. Looking at the underlying numbers and the difference in on the field performance, it’s to imagine this team not moving with Petke.
While signing Petke to a long term deal was the very first thing on the agenda, finding a permanent striker up top was item number two. The team seems to have fulfilled that with signing Alfredo Ortuño on a free after from jumping from loan situation to loan situation over a three year stint.
The veteran of La Liga 2 scored 17 goals across 3,400 minutes off 82 shots last year, but perhaps more importantly, the six foot striker also wins nearly six duels a game. With the diminutive Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino swinging in crosses, they're hopeful he’s going to get his head on at least a few of them.
The addition of Damir Kreilach, a Croatian box-to-box central midfielder, is a bit underwhelming after the well-advertised discussions between RSL and Tigres UANL concerning midfielder Jesus Dueñas. But Kreilach is someone that’s shown a history of success in Bundisliga 2, averaging almost four shots created per 90 minutes the past three seasons for Union Berlin. This doesn't necessarily promise future success in MLS, but at least speaks to his level of quality.
While Ortuño and Kreilach will provide immediate impact in the starting eleven, Pablo Ruíz, an Argentinian with all of 500 professional minutes, is an interesting add both in terms of depth and ceiling. He will be a long term project but could very well play a role in 2018.
Lastly, winger Brooks Lennon, on loan from Liverpool in 2018, was secured on a permanent transfer. Lennon wasn't great last season but has shown promise both in terms of his play with RSL and with the US youth national team, including a call-up for the USMNT January camp.
Starting from the back, Rimando is still numero uno at keeper. I’m not sure what the long-term plans are, but he’s there now and looks to be entrenched at the moment. He may not be the player he was two or even four years ago when he was an all-time great, but he’s still one of the best keepers in MLS.
The right back position for the better part of a decade has belong to Tony Beltran. He’s been quietly good and borderline great over that time period. But because of a knee injury Beltran won't be able to return until late summer, so it looks like Welsh fullback Adam Henley will hold down the spot until he's healthy. The team has been impressed by homegrown Aaron Herrera in preseason, so he may also get a chance there.
And with the future in mind it appears that 20-year old US youth international Danilo Acosta has the left back position in tow. Demar Phillips will spell him from time-to-time and I think would be interesting to see push for some additional minutes up the wing should the need arise off-the-bench.
Justen Glad saw his minutes decrease in 2017 but that was more due to international obligations and playing in the U20 World Cup than because of poor performance. Now that he’s back I would expect a full season of minutes on the docket for him.
Additionally, Uruguayan defender Marcelo Silva was signed on a free in July and could be a huge addition to the back line. If he can keep healthy, his early injury after arriving to the club notwithstanding, he’ll be a great partner for Glad.
The central midfield will look a bit different, but not because of Kyle Beckerman’s absence so much as the signature dreadlocks that he cut off this off-season. While Beckerman will have fewer tentacles flailing about, he’s still a skilled defensive midfielder. But one has to wonder how long the 35-year old will continue to keep it up. The last two years we’ve seen a drop in his amount of defensive actions and, again, that doesn’t speak to a drop in quality. However it’s suspicious considering the team has been utilizing a pressing system. That being said, he's the team leader in touches and is the metronome of the team on attack.
Next to Beckerman will be a bit of a mystery as there is a bit up in the air concerning the number eight role. It could be once more Luke Mulholland or perhaps the new signing Kreilach. While I'm not sure who starts the season there, my bet is that Kreilach is the one who finishes the season as the eight.
The “ten” and team facilitator and ball operator will be reigning club MVP and Golden boot winner, Albert Rusnák. The team leader in assists last year tied for first in goals, though he over-performed his underlying numbers. While his performance was good, and I’m sure many would argue was one of the most impressive new talents in MLS not named Almiron, we’ll need to see that “next” step from him to help elevate his team.
Joao Plata happens to be the left wing inverse of Rusnák. Last year he under-performed his underlying numbers, which painted him as one of the elite wingers in MLS (19.88 xG+xA, 5th in MLS). What he needs to do is start converting those numbers into actual production.
Jefferson Savarino will be the right wing. Another mid-season transfer for Real Salt Lake in 2017, he came in and produced numbers that were above average for MLS and right in the ballpark of other productive players'. His numbers seem to hide him a bit due to playing only 1,700 minute,s but looking at his p96 ratios on the board we can see two things: first, he’s not simply a creator. He split his xG/xA numbers and seems to have an attitude of finding a person who will either take the shot or will take it himself if need be. And second, he’s able to carve out his own space in already crowded attacking third with Rusnák and Plata.
Up top, leading the attack, will most certainly be the aforementioned Spanish striker, Alfredo Ortuño. I have a few reservations concerning his lack of shot volume with past clubs, but considering the personnel they have behind him, if he’s not going to take the shot there are three or four others who won’t hesitate.
This team has quality from top down to the bottom. I think they've got the defensive ability to stifle just about any attack in the western conference. However, despite all the quality on the surface MLS has improved this season and many teams now have distinctive quality on the bench too.
Real Salt Lake has a quantity of youth on their roster but the true quality of that depth is relatively raw and unknown. This limits the teams perceived upside for me and creates a deeper floor for them to fall towards. Maybe the youth prove themselves and challenge a very talented first eleven or maybe they’re lacking and depth becomes an issue.
I imagine this is a team that if things go right can compete for a playoff spot, and even make a run at the top seed in the West. But if just a few dominos fall incorrectly you could be looking at team that was similar to that of 2017, capable of grinding a result but ultimately lacking and on the outside of the playoff race.