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|Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis has numerous decisions to make when it comes to personnel and when it comes to prioritizing CCL or MLS.|
2011 record and finish: 15-11-8 (third place in Western Conference)
Additions: M Enzo Martinez; D Diogo de Almeida; F Emiliano Bonfigli; M Jonny Steele; M Sebastian Velasquez; D Terakazu Tanaka
Losses: M Collen Warner; D Robbie Russell; M Jean Alexandre; M Arturo Alvarez; M Andy Williams; M Nelson González; D Rauwshan McKenzie
Key questions facing this team:
1. Which direction is RSL headed?
Over the past few seasons, Real Salt Lake has managed to do incredibly well with limited resources. That's thanks to two advantages RSL still has over the rest of the league: team chemistry and the coaching genius of Jason Kreis. But this winter has brought an arms race to much of the Western Conference, as teams look to foreign markets for immediate answers to their deficiencies. While opponents have improved, RSL largely stood pat while a number of influential veterans have found the exit. Given the quality that has moved on, Kreis will have his work cut out if RSL is to improve on last season.
2. Is Javier Morales back to full speed?
After missing most of the season with an ankle injury, RSL's playmaker returned to action late last year. He wasn't quite the same player on his return, but with an offseason to rest, there's been time for Morales to regain his once scintillating form in Claret and Cobalt. But time is a factor for the veteran, who turned 32 in January. Morales at full speed will be essential to the Royals' chances of repeating last year's run to the Conference final.
3. Is the depth there this time around?
Real Salt Lake's greatest weakness last season proved to be its depth. Kreis' team didn't have the manpower to deal with three competitions, limping out of the spring after a heartbreaking loss in the final of the CONCACAF Champions League. Injuries and tired legs turned the season into a long slog, and though the team had the veteran guile to persevere, the numbers situation has only gotten worse over the offseason.
With no fewer than seven veterans who played significant minutes no longer with the team, and their replacements coming mostly by way of the amateur draft, the team's experience level has decreased significantly. RSL is so vulnerable to absence that an early-season injury bug has already left them short-handed with less than a month to first kick. On the upside, young legs may be just what Kreis will need as the season draws on and the CCL group stage approaches in late summer.
|Fresh out of college, Enzo Martinez may need to contribute immediately for RSL.|
Biggest X factor: Enzo Martinez
Andy Williams, Collen Warner, Arturo Alvarez and Jean Alexandre are all gone from last year, and Martinez is the only significant addition to the midfield corps. By any calculus that likely means major minutes for the rookie from North Carolina. Kreis loves this player, who he says fits in perfectly to RSL's possession-oriented style. But placing too much responsibility on a rookie is always a gamble.
Breakout player to watch: Luis Gil
By the same math that will mean big minutes for Martinez as a rookie, much more will be expected of the even younger Luis Gil in his third season. The 18-year-old Gil has been brought slowly into the league by a careful Kreis and the RSL organization. But Morales will need more downtime as he ages, so 2012 will likely be the year RSL loosens the reins on the American prodigy.
Until the rest of MLS proves it on the field, the best approach is probably not to doubt the brain trust in Salt Lake. Kreis and company have kept the RSL machine humming for years on limited resources, so the jettisoning of veteran contracts for hand-picked, younger pieces should probably be interpreted as a solid step toward maintaining the proud tradition that's been built in Utah.
But there will undoubtedly be some growing pains this year as younger players get more reps behind the veteran corps. With limited depth, the team is also overly vulnerable to injuries to its key players. If something isn't done to address the numbers situation, things could get desperate by summer, when MLS heats up and CCL group play kicks off. Kreis may find himself with a decision to make -- either get some reinforcements or prioritize either the league or CCL -- if RSL wants to stick around deep into the playoffs again this year.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.