(Clever sub-titles seem in order here…perhaps even too-clever ones; I mean, is RSL really a riddle?)
Real Salt Lake’s (RSL) past two seasons have followed the Riddle of the Sphinx made famous by the story of Oedipus: “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?” The relationship is, naturally, more conceptual than actual: RSL starts slow – albeit fatally so, unlike the baby of the riddle – then rallies strongly enough in mid-season for the word “playoffs” to get bandied about, but that’s only the tease that comes before they feebly squander their post-season hopes to a series of draws and ill-timed losses.
Oh well. At least they won the Rocky Mountain Cup this year.
Then again, 2007 seemed a crueler year, one in which a playoff race all at once exciting and pathetic combined with some modestly hopeful omens to suggest RSL could stick around the “man” phase long enough to make the post-season. The season even started with a glimmer of hope with a fresh-start Freddy Adu coming to town. Sadly, that arrangement that went South fast enough to lose head coach John Ellinger his job by early May. If it ever feels like only yesterday since Jason Kreis took over, consider that.
But the illusion of rounding the corner to a sunlit street teased RSL all season long. Kreis’ his first game in charge featured a fighting 3-3 draw against a seemingly potent Red Bull New York; then three straight losses to weak teams followed from there. In mid-to-late June, Nate Sturgis’ and Robbie Findley’s arrived from the LA Galaxy bringing with them the team’s first win of 2007 and, in Findley, the hope that they had finally landed a goal-scorer. The Kyle Beckerman/Mehdi Ballouchy trade came in July and, after that, the arrival of the “Three Argies” – Fabian Espindola, Matias Mantilla, and Javier Morales; these last two coincided with RSL’s best spell of 2007, a 4-4-3 run through August and September. That may not sound like much, but this is MLS, where a sub-.500 can still spell playoffs.
Each little dawn faded quickly, though none so painfully as that long, lingering slide away from a post-season berth. Of the four “life-line” wins compiled over August and September, only two were consecutive and the fateful losses and draws picked up all around them killed what little hope RSL fans could briefly cherish. In fact, the fourth win in that “glory run” came too late to do anything but help bring home the Rocky Mountain Cup and ruin Colorado’s season. Maybe those “little dawns” were just anomalies in the season of a genuinely bad team?
– The big defining one: RSL didn’t win their first game until June 23, when they beat DC United on the back of two Robbie Findley goals. An interesting sub-detail: I didn’t check every name, but it looks Findley’s six goals (he scored his other two for LA) led RSL in 2007. I’m not saying that’s pathetic, but I’m not saying it isn’t either.
– RSL managed only one multi-goal win in 2007: a 3-1 win over the Kansas City Wizards on August 29.
What Went Right
– File under “it could be worse; it could be raining.” Even the fans in Salt Lake City seem burned out.
– OK, the fact RSL finished only half-flaccid has people thinking Kreis has made a tough team at the very least.
– Beckerman for Ballouchy was a good trade and demonstrates promising savvy. And swapping Findley and Sturgis for an aging Chris Klein was pretty sharp too.
– You can’t win if you don’t score; RSL’s 31 goals tied Chicago – who, it’s worth noting did make the playoffs; that needn’t be fatal – for second to last in offensive production (Toronto FC “won” that race, of course, with their 25 goal output).
– In spite of a very strong year for Nick Rimando in goal, RSL’s defense was weak; for what it’s worth, though, not unusually so. Only Toronto and LA let in more goals and RSL tied New York and KC at 45 goals allowed. Before you think that sucks horribly, Columbus and Dallas let in 44 and New England – MLS Cup finalists, mind you – allowed 43.
– The point is, combine the negative and the positive and it’s pretty clear that this team needs to get things right on at least one side of the ball.
Key Men (as in the Ones You Want Back) (roster)
I’ll start by stating I think RSL has some useful, though not vital, pieces, guys like Chris Wingert, Atiba Harris (at least at defensive mid), and Andy Williams. These guys don’t, however, make the “keep-at-all-costs” list…and the first guy named only barely does.
Carey Talley: I get the impression he’s the heart and soul of this team; the question is how many years he has left, especially in midfield, given that he turns 32 in 2008.
Kyle Beckerman: A very good two-way player and a must keep. He makes possible shifting Talley back to, say, the retired Eddie Pope’s defensive role.
Robbie Findley: A high-upside rookie, someone worth grooming in hopes of getting something great.
Nick Rimando: Read the game reports; sure, he made mistakes, but see how much worse RSL’s goals-against number could have been….perhaps even should have been.
Chris Brown: OK, make that two reaches; but I’d keep him to stave off a complete rebuild in the offense. He’s getting old, but is still useful enough.
Anyone Who Ought to Leave
Alecko Eskandarian: For all the fire, he’s not the answer at forward. If he’s happy in Salt Lake City, I might keep him and hope for a better 2008. If he wants to leave, though, let him.
Jean-Martial Kipre: I could be wrong here, but Kipre’s name was too often followed in the match reports by “hauled down” and “beaten badly.”
What They’re Needin’
– As close to a major overhaul as you can get under MLS rules.
– OK, seriously, one top-drawer forward, if not two; the two Browns (Chris and Kyle) are at least competent second-fiddles and Findley’s could make it on the fence, but RSL needs at least one solid striker to compete; two would be better.
– Better defenders with with defensive depth as the goal. Willis Forko struck me as competent enough, as did Wingert. Talley is good, but after that….well, they need defenders and now.
– Consciously or not, I ranked these in order. If RSL stands pat anywhere, I’d make it in midfield. This isn’t to say they’re good in the middle, so much as it’s to suggest they have bigger problems elsewhere.