By Ridge Mahoney
The names have changed, but RSL’s tradition of Latin style and American grit has not.
Well before a second-place finish in the Western Conference, team management had decided a few major names and their big salaries had to be jettisoned. Seattle ended RSL’s season with a 1-0 aggregate victory in the Western Conference semifinals with the first goal scored by the Sounders in five meetings, which punctuated the sense that an era had ended. RSL not only shed salary, it accumulated approximately $500,000 in allocation money by trading forward Fabian Espindola and defender Jamison Olave to New York, and sending midfielder Will Johnson to Portland. It clearly signaled its future direction by aggressively negotiating a new contract with playmaker Javier Morales, and turned down numerous inquiries into the availability of top scorer Alvaro Saborio, whose 17 goals tied for third-best in MLS.
But the injury bug bit Morales again. Two weeks after his new deal was announced in mid-January, he suffered a torn lateral meniscus in a scrimmage against the Danish under-20 team. The injury isn’t nearly as severe as the fractured ankle and ligament damage he suffered in May 2011, when crunched by a Marcos Mondaini tackle, and he’s expected back in March. Yet despite logging nine assists last year, he started only 23 games (29 appearances overall) and at times seemed to be
hesitant rather than confident.
Head coach Jason Kreis has been grooming centerback Chris Schuler, a third-round pick in the 2010 SuperDraft, for a starting role. He played only 13 games last year after making 20 appearances in 2011, and right now the competition between him and Kwame Watson-Siriboe to replace Olave in the slot alongside veteran Nat Borchers looks about even.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Where to start? Getting rid of Espindola, Olave and Johnson would cripple a lot of teams, and Brazilian forward Paulo Jr. wound up in Vancouver after RSL declined his option. To fill the gaps, RSL landed two league veterans who had taken short overseas stints. Robbie Findley – who led RSL with 12 goals when it last reached MLS Cup in 2009 -- returns from England, and Joao Plata joins up via a trade with Toronto FC after a quick trip to his native Ecuador. Forward Olmes Garcia comes directly to MLS in a transfer deal with Deportivo Quindio of his native Colombia, and Jamaican Lovel Palmer – who has played defensive mid and centerback for Houston and Portland the past four seasons – adds a good dose of experience. Former Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders and well-traveled midfielder Khari Stephenson were signed late last week. In the absence of Morales and Luis Gil, who is playing with the U.S. U-20s in their Concacaf qualifying campaign, Stephenson started in midfield Saturday along with Ned Grabavoy, Sebastian Velasquez and captain Kyle Beckerman against Seattle in the final of the Desert Diamond Cup. RSL lost, 1-0, but without Concacaf club commitments in March Kreis has a little more wiggle room to re-assemble his roster.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? If Kreis can revive the careers of Findley and Plata, RSL can be more dynamic than in the Espindola Era, since Plata can give the attack width in the final third it has often lacked playing a narrow midfield diamond. The losses notwithstanding, RSL is still strong down the middle of the park with veterans Beckerman, Borchers and goalie Nick Rimando forming the team’s spine. A winning tradition – it has reached the playoffs the past five seasons – transcends personnel changes.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? RSL lost four games at home last year, the most since moving into Rio Tinto Stadium full-time for the 2009 season. That’s still a solid record but a slide in the wrong direction. Espindola’s streaky performances and volatile temperament could be frustrating, yet his bold explosiveness also broke open games in which RSL had stagnated. That element will be hard to replace, as will be the enthusiasm and support of former owner Dave Checketts, who sold his majority interest in the club to partner Dell Loy Hansen a month ago.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Saborio is one of the league’s top goalscorers and over the years has developed a keen communication with Morales. He works the final third shrewdly to get on the end of serves, and is particularly dangerous in the air. Gil has been highly touted since arriving in a trade with Kansas City three years ago and could see a lot of time if Morales’ recovery is a slow one. Plata's quick, slashing dribbles livened up TFC's game at times in his first season before he fizzled out last year.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: Columbus | Houston | Montreal | New England | Philadelphia | Toronto FC
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Seattle | Vancouver