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
 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
-- whose rights were claimed by Portland and then traded -- returned from overseas to help out up top. Luis
, 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
, 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
, were tied up much of the season with national-team duties, so other veterans – defender Nat
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
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
“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