By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)
Going into the 2018 season, Real Salt Lake’s success depended on a few key signings and the growth of their young talents. Both were mixed bags. Heading into 2019, that mix will tilt more heavily toward their youth, as RSL furthers their dependence on an ability to raise and develop young prospects.
Real Salt Lake’s 2018 season was wild. Let’s run through a list of the wild things that happened:
Alfredo Ortuno, a Spanish number nine that they signed at a $1 million salary, played 119 minutes all season.
Ortuno was bumped from the starting lineup by a defensive mid, who had scored double digit goals in a season just once in his career. (This is still crazy to me. How does this happen?)
That defensive mid, Damir Kreilach, was excellent as a center forward! He put up 12 goals and eight assists in the regular season, and in the playoffs scored an incredible crane kick goal that knocked LAFC out of the playoffs in their own stadium.
RSL only made the playoffs after a historic second-half implosion by the LA Galaxy on the last day of the season. The Galaxy somehow managed to lose to Houston 3-2 after taking a 2-0 lead into halftime.
In a game against the Galaxy in September, a duck ran onto the field and refused to be corralled for several minutes.
RSL hung six goals on the Galaxy in that game, which followed a 6-0 performance against Colorado.
After a game in July, feeling hard done by a no-call on a Minnesota goal, coach Mike Petke launched into a rant against MLS officials that include the lines, “Fine me! I don’t care anymore. So drain my bank account. I don’t give a shit anymore. OK?” Petke was then fined.
It was an endlessly entertaining season to watch, even if the soccer did not always follow suit. Concerningly for a team built in large part around young players, RSL actually were substantially worse in 2017 than in 2018, seen here in their change in xGD:
Some of this can be chalked up to growing pains - kids are going to have setbacks. Danny Acosta, who was excellent in limited minutes as a 19 year old in 2017, had a hard time getting onto the field. Justen Glad and Brooks Lennon didn’t always look totally sharp on the backline.
But much more of that decline was on RSL’s more experienced players. Kyle Beckerman turned 36, and his declining ability to cover ground showed - he accumulated his fewest interceptions and most missed tackles since 2013, the first season we have that data:
Beckerman and Kreilach were virtually unplayable in the midfield together, and him paired with Sunny was also not much better.
Joao Plata ran hot and, at the end of the season, very very cold:
One veteran who did put up good numbers was Nick Rimando, one of the keepers we can be most certain of possessing above average shot-stopping ability. Rimando hasn’t yet shown any signs of age-related decline. Here’s his goals allowed minus xG since 2011:
A few of the youth’s were pretty good, too. Jefferson Savarino put up seven goals and 11 assists in his second season in MLS, and Albert Rusnak put up 10 goals and seven assists. The biggest revelation was Rookie of the Year Corey Baird, who recorded eight goals and five assists in 2018. He racked up 0.49 xG + xA per 90, more than Dom Dwyer, Alejandro Silva, and Lucho Acosta. Though he mostly played as a nine for RSL, he looked quite good on the wing in the USMNT’s January camp games. The future really should be bright for this group, along with Glad, and playmaker Bofo Saucedo.
Key 2019 Additions
Despite Baird’s emergence, RSL went out and added DP forward Sam Johnson from Valerenga, in Norway (this probably means Baird gets more looks out wide this year). People that would know better than I rate him pretty highly. He’s just 25, so he’s hitting his prime right now, and having Baird on a cheap contract gives the team insurance in case Johnson doesn’t pan out. It appears too that his DP status should be able to be bought down with TAM in case the team decides it can better use that DP spot. In sum, that makes the addition of Johnson relatively low-risk, even if his ceiling is also not that high.
Everton Luiz looks to be the new partner for either Beckerman or Kreilach in the midfield. Luiz, 30-year old Brazilian, joins the team on loan from SPAL in Italy. He’s profile checks out - he’s gotten decent run in Italy and before that with Partizan, a top of the table club in Serbia, so he’s probably fine.
RSL also signed five (5!!!) homegrowns to first-team contracts. This is exactly what a club that wants to make their youth system into a competitive advantage should be doing. Forward Julian Vazquez has shown well in preseason, and keeper David Ochoa probably won’t get minutes over Rimando this year, and may likely be loaned out, but he’ll be a player to watch down the line as RSL looks to phase-out Rimando (at this rate probably not until 2030, but still).
Key 2019 Departures
It’s hard to call any of RSL’s offseason departures “key”. Promising but mercurial fullback Danny Acosta was sent on loan to Orlando, where he’ll hopefully find it easier to get into the starting 11.
Sunny, who dealt with injury issues and at times looked good but at other times looked pretty lost, had his option declined.
A few solid veterans also had their options declined, including Demar Phillips, Luke Mulholland, and David Horst, but none were otherwise looking at starter-quality minutes in 2019.
Tactical Expectations / Roster Outlook
For a team that is returning their entire core, and that only really added two potentially key players, the team’s actual starting lineup is pretty uncertain. Petke did move guys around a lot last year, so that’s probably reflected here, but it also largely speaks to the team’s attacking depth. Salt Lake could run out a number of different, interesting looks in their front four. Bobby Warshaw wrote a great article on this, so maybe just go read that.
Maybe the most traditional 4-2-3-1 looks like Kreilach at forward, with Baird-Rusnak-Savarino behind him. That of course leaves out Sam Johnson, and also Saucedo (who has impressed in preseason), and Joao Plata, but Kreilach’s hold up play / withdrawn striker profile fits well with Savarino and Baird’s ability to make smart runs off the ball. The ability to bring Plata and Johnson off the bench gives them a lot of speed to turn to late in a game, and they’re guys that can break a game open by themselves. If I had to bet, I’d go with the lineup to the right on the road against Houston in week one, at least.
Going with a more pacy look risks turning the game into a track meet, which teams usually try to avoid against Houston.
Ideally I think RSL would have someone better able to make up for Kreilach’s shortcomings than Beckerman - a player who is able to eat up more ground as a lone defensive mid. That would allow Petke to get Kreilach, Rusnak, and Johnson all on the field together in something like the below in a 4-3-3.
Everton Luiz doesn’t seem to be that guy, though, and I think without that guy the above 4-3-3 leaves too much space in front of the center backs. Ultimately the decisions Petke decides to make may come down to how well they match up against their opponent, and to who has had good form.
The defensive side of the ball is a lot thinner (and maybe weaker?). Beckerman and Luiz are probably the only two playable options in the double-pivot starting spots, although Nick Besler can fill in there, and maybe 20-year old Pablo Ruiz develops into a starter. At center back, Glad has looked back on top of things in preseason, but Marcelo Silva has not. Besler can fill in there too, and did often last season.
Given the team’s stability, attacking depth, and general youth, while they were not great in 2018 they should be better in 2019, with a continued upward trajectory for the future. Their success will come down to their young guys continuing to improve, and, ideally, their new number nine actually being a forward capable of scoring goals. RSL should definitely be a playoff team - they’re ahead of five Western Conference teams for sure (in no particular order, Colorado, San Jose, Minnesota, Vancouver and Dallas). Whether they surmount that next tier of teams (Houston, LAG, and Portland(?)) will come down to exactly how much they improve, and whether Mike Petke can unlock a setup that gets them to their full potential.