Who will get those other minutes left by Wingert is up for debate, but Demar Phillips appears to be the frontrunner. The Jamaican international joins RSL from Aalesunds FK, a successful team in Norway’s top division. Also an option is the 26-year-old Abdoulie Mansally, who made 11 appearances with six starts last season. Both could provide a stronger offensive presence than Wingert from the back. Mansally was once a forward, and produced more xGoals and xAssists than Wingert on a per-minute basis in 2014, and Phillips has scored 12 goals for the Jamaican international team over the years, indicating some experience being offensive.
RSL is known for its 4-4-2 lineup with an effective diamond midfield. It started four midfielders in every game but one last season, at least nominally. This is interesting because multiple sources suggest that RSL could come out in a 4-3-3 in 2015. After losing Ned Grabavoy to NYCFC in the expansion draft—in addition to a growing pool of forward talent—RSL may be rethinking its personnel and style. Last season the midfield quartet of Grabavoy, Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Luke Mulholland produced 15.5 expected goals and 16.2 expected assists in 10,581 minutes. For comparison’s sake, D.C. United’s primary middle four logged 10,359 minutes and recorded just 10.8 expected goals and 6.8 expected assists. Though it may not be completely fair to compare them to D.C. United, team style aside, it shows that RSL got a lot more out of its midfield than another successful MLS team that also played a 4-4-2.
Regardless of formation, 2015 is likely to feature more of USMNT member Luis Gil and less of Mulholland. Mulholland outpaced Gil in shots and expected goals last season, but not by much once you consider that Gil played 500 fewer minutes. Just 21 years of age and getting USMNT experience, Gil is ready to start and play 2,500+ minutes. But the question remains, will RSL’s midfield be able to continue to produce high quantity and quality of chances in a new formation? Was Grabavoy more important to the mix than many thought? I don't have these answers, but perhaps 2015 does.
Another reason for the potential formation change may have a lot to do with the emergence of Plata, Olmes Garcia, and Devon Sandoval as good young forwards, as well as the mid-season signing of Argentine striker Sebastian Jaime back in August. With Saborio returning from an injury-shortened season, RSL may feel that it can maximize production by simply allowing more forwards to play at once. The loss of Robbie Findley’s 822 minutes may not even be noticed.
There was a focus Plata’s 13 goals and what he was able to do for RSL by scoring, but I noticed something else in his statistical line. He led RSL’s forwards in 2014 by far in key passes and expected assists with 48 and 5.7, respectively. Of course, he played more minutes, so how about this one: in 2,084 minutes, Plata recorded more key passes and xAssists individually than every other main RSL forward in a combined 4,294 minutes.*** Even if it starts three forwards in 2015, Real Salt Lake would have one that distributes enough to make it work well.
Despite the losses of Borchers, Grabavoy, and Findley, among others, RSL definitely has the fire power to compete for a top three finish in the Western Conference, though that may not be the average projection. I feel that RSL’s success in 2015 hinges on its ability to make the midfield as effective as it was the past, whether it chooses to replace Grabavoy with a forward (4-3-3) or work Gil in with the remaining midfielders (4-4-2). Our predictive model from the end of last season suggested that RSL would be expected to finish essentially tied for fourth in the West with Portland, Sporting KC, and Vancouver. I think it's fair to project RSL to finish somewhere between 3rd and 7th in a tight Western Conference.
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***Includes Saborio, Garcia, Findley, Sandoval, and Jaime.