'High expectations' guide Salt Lake through rough preseason

[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Preseason results don't matter, but what, if anything, they portend for the future can matter. When Real Salt Lake lost to the Galaxy, 2-0, Saturday in Tuscon at the Desert Diamond Cup, there were all manner of mitigating circumstances.

Not much about this game is expected to resemble their “rematch” March 10 in the 2012 season opener for both teams at Home Depot Center. Starters were absent for both teams: Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane didn’t play for the Galaxy, and none of its backline regulars started the game.

RSL was missing defender Nat Borchers, playmaker Javier Morales, and striker Alvaro Saborio, and it lost Ned Grabavoy and Yordany Alvarez to red cards, after which Paulo Cardozo and Mike Magee scored in the 81st and 87th minutes, respectively.

Still, RSL knows its slow start last year due to Concacaf Champions League play eventually dropped it off the pace. The accelerated preparation helped RSL get off to a good start in league play but it paid the price later in the season. Though it ousted Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals it couldn’t handle Los Angeles in the conference final.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Borchers. “We got a taste of it last year and so we were in midseason form in March. That was excellent for us. The way it ended up hurting us was in midseason, later on in the season, we kind of burned out. The way we’re looking at it this year is we do have fewer games so we can keep guys healthy and get quality minutes out of them during the season.”

RSL doesn’t need to rush preparations as it did last year when the quarterfinals were staged in February, since it is not in the last eight this time around. Not until the next phase of Concacaf’s club championship, the 2012-13 version, commences in July will crowded schedules become a concern.

“We’re a little banged up at the moment,” says Borchers of the walking wounded that includes him and Espindola hobbled by strained quads. “We’ve got a big group of injured guys who aren’t able to compete fully in training, and I think that’s been tough for us. That being said, we’re all pretty confident about where we’re at and we know the guys we’ve brought into camp have been very good. So there’s nothing to worry about.”

This is the second trip of the preseason for RSL, which bases its academy program in Arizona and has given a couple of products as well as a few trialists some playing time. Coach Jason Kreis is auditioning Argentine forward Emiliano Bonfigli, who came on as a sub against the Galaxy as he tries to win a contract.

“I was very pleased with things when we were on level terms,” said Kreis, whose team went down to nine men in the 77th minute when Alvarez received his second caution. “I thought we did a great job of maintaining the rhythm of the game, keeping the ball and creating chances. The result, of course we don’t like, but I’ll chalk that up to some difficult choices.”

RSL plays two more matches in the tournament: it faces New England on Wednesday, for which the ejected players will be available, and plays
for either third place or the tournament title on Saturday. It started off by beating New York, 1-0, last weekend with a goal by Paulo Jr., who is getting some starts while Saborio recovers from arthroscopic surgery performed last November to correct a chondral defect in his knee cartilage.

“He looks strong,” says Borchers of the Costa Rican international who has scored 27 regular-season and playoff goals in his two MLS seasons.
“He’s been pinging balls around, very mobile, good first touch. He’s actually been surprising how well he’s progressed since his surgery.”

Saborio hopes to play in that season opener; he was originally projected to miss perhaps the first two months but his progress suggests he may return sooner.

“I feel good, I feel strong, I am getting better every day, and hopefully I can play in the first game of the season,” he said, optimistically. His recovery is one reason Bonfigli is getting a long look from Kreis and the coaching staff.

The Galaxy is heavily favored to repeat as Supporters’ Shield winner and MLS Cup holder yet Borchers believes his team is among those capable of knocking out the champion. Only eight teams -- including defunct Miami and Tampa Bay -- have won the regular-season title since MLS started up in 1996 and RSL -- MLS Cup champion in 2009 when it beat the Galaxy on penalty kicks -- isn’t one of them. Yet.

“You look at the Western Conference and you see three or four of the best teams in the league,” he says of the imbalance between east and
west. “Unfortunately, we finished in third place last year and second place the year before.

“We really want to be in that first-place spot, we really want that Supporters’ Shield. We always have high expectations for ourselves.”

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