Real Salt Lake, the makeover team, makes it all the way to final

By Ridge Mahoney

Rebuild. Revamp. Reload. Rebound.

None of those words matter to Real Salt Lake, where the ‘r’ word that counts is Results. It can cap off a remarkable season of recovery (!) by beating Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup championship game on Saturday. Regardless of the outcome, however, RSL has proven that by shrewd management and patience a team need not suffer indefinitely in the wake of significant change.

“It’s not something we hope to do every day, trading away three All-Stars at the end of season,” said general manager Garth Lagerwey in a conference call Monday. “But we went five games at the end of the [2012] season without scoring. We felt like we had a Champions League group that we should have advanced out of, but we didn’t, so we thought we had to change some things up. The nature of MLS is that there’s always going to be salary-cap pressure to try bring in younger players and move out more veteran players.”

Road to MLS Cup 2013:
LA Galaxy-RSL: 1-0
RSL-LA Galaxy: 2-0
RSL-Portland: 4-2
Portland-RSL: 0-1

A dramatic offseason makeover that sent defender Jamison Olave and forward Fabian Espindola to New York and midfielder Will Johnson to Portland not only strengthened those clubs, but opened up spots for young players who’d been groomed in the RSL system as well as key additions. Since winning the 2009 MLS Cup after a sub .500 regular season (11-12-7), RSL has hit benchmarks of at least 50 points and 15 wins four consecutive years while playing some of the most stylish soccer found in the league.

Fortunately, RSL retained enough of its veteran core to crank out results as replacements found their feet. “The success of those core guys, on and off the field, integrating those young guys and also holding themselves to even higher levels of performance has really been a key to our success this season,” said Lagerwey.

The roster shakeup, painful as it was, provided both short-term and long-term benefits. The team cut about $600,000 in salary by moving those three players and according to two sources acquired between $300,000 and $350,000 in allocation money. It used that money to replenish the squad with remarkable success.

RSL finished second behind Portland in the Western Conference with a 16-10-8 record, knocked off the defending champion Galaxy, 2-1, on aggregate in the conference semifinals, then torched the Timbers, 5-2, over two games to reach its second MLS Cup.

An organization that preaches "the team is the star" backed up that mantra in 2013. Defender Chris Schuler stepped into Olave’s spot and teenager Carlos Salcedo played a lot of minutes. Forward Robbie Findley -- whose rights were claimed by Portland and then traded -- returned from overseas to help out up top. Luis Gil, in the midst of a heavy campaign that included playing for the U.S. under-20s at the world championships, got the bulk of time in Johnson’s stead.

Tricky winger Joao Plata found a home on his second stint in MLS, 21-year-old Columbian forward Olmes Garcia scored five goals after being signed in February, and rookie Devon Sandoval displayed poise and acumen while scoring three goals in 17 games. In his second pro season since leaving junior college, Sebastian Velasquez started nine of his 19 appearances, several of which were truly impressive. Yordany Alvarez, originally acquired on loan in 2011 from Orlando City SC, had his struggles while contributing 18 appearances (11 starts).

Kreis and his coaching staff managed to replace talent with talent, yet they also urged a strong core of veterans to accelerate the adjustment process. Two of RSL’s leaders, keeper Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman, were tied up much of the season with national-team duties, so other veterans – defender Nat Borchers and midfielder Ned Grabavoy among them --- filled the breach.

“With those guys leaving, we’ve had other guys step in in a number of different games,” said Grabavoy, 30, a holdover from the 2009 championship team who led the team in minutes played with 2,688. “We’ve had to shuffle things around a lot this year and maybe it was for the best to have that happen at the beginning of the year to get guys time and get guys confident.

“Without question, it’s a situation where the older, core guys on the team have had to give a little bit more of that because of the number of young players and new players to our system. To help bring those guys along is only going to benefit everyone within the club.”

Drastic moves turned out well but they did extract a personal price. “Those decisions have become a little easier, but I would never call them easy and I would never look at them, frankly, at just being a part of the job,” says Kreis, who on Tuesday refuted a report his purported move to expansion team NYCFC is all but consummated.

“For me, part of the job is being an emotional leader, for me part of the job is being connected to the players, for me part of the job is knowing how they feel about things and trying to gain information from them and use that to lead them in the right way. I lose sleep over it, I get emotional over losing players and trading players. I sent Will Johnson away, to Portland, that hurts me.”

That bond of team and player sometimes continues after the relationship is officially broken. During a video chat Tuesday to announce the MLS Best XI selection, Johnson admitted he’ll be rooting for “my brothers” on Saturday. Johnson was one of three Timbers named to the Best XI and their leader, Caleb Porter, was named Coach of the Year. Yet RSL went unbeaten against Portland (four wins, two ties) in all competitions en route to the title game.

Those stars that remained came through. RSL posted 14 shutouts, second-best in the league to Portland. Alvaro Saborio played just 16 regular-season games because of injuries and commitments to Costa Rica’s national team yet still scored 12 goals. Playmaker Javier Morales, also nicked by injuries, scored an MLS career-high eight goals and led the team with 10 assists. Borchers, who needed time to recover from offseason quad surgery, played every minute of his 28 appearances and is one of five field players who hasn’t missed a minute in the playoffs.

“We’ve been really fortunate in the past at Real Salt Lake to have an identity in the way we play,” says Borchers, a former Rapid who signed with RSL in 2008 after two seasons in Norway with Odd Grenland. “It wasn’t easy to lose those guys from a personal and professional standpoint. But we were able to bring in some really high-quality players and they bought into our system and what we were trying to do.

“It takes time. There’s some times obviously I want to tear my hair out at training but then there’s times when guys get it, they understand it and it works out well. We’ve been really fortunate to have that system in place and just to have great players to come in and fill those roles.”

Says Kreis of those veteran players who helped indoctrinate a new generation of players into the ways of RSL, “We have leaned on those guys heavily and they have done nothing but deliver.”
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