MLS 2011 team preview: Real Salt Lake
2010 record and finish: 15-4-11 (2nd place in Western Conference)
Key losses: F Robbie Findley
Key questions facing this team:
1. Can Alvaro Saborio carry even more of the goal-scoring load?
The 2010 MLS Newcomer of the Year was RSL's leading scorer this past season, with 12 goals. The Costa Rican's loan from Swiss side FC Sion was so successful that Real Salt Lake shelled out designated-player money for the first time in franchise history to keep him on a permanent basis.
Though Robbie Findley didn't score much last season, he did excel at taking defensive attention off Saborio. With that support element gone, Saborio will need to earn his improved paycheck with even more output. He's scored plenty everywhere else he's been, so it's not out of the question, especially as he gets even more comfortable in MLS. So don't be surprised if Jeff Cunningham's RSL season goal-scoring mark of 16 falls this year.
2. Does RSL have the depth to win championships?
RSL kept its core intact during the offseason, parting ways with only three players. But on the other side of the ledger, it didn't do much to buttress a top-heavy roster. Coach Jason Kreis will depend on the development of a corps of relatively untested young players to back up his first string.
Particularly on defense, RSL could struggle to maintain quality, unless backups Rauwshan McKenzie and Chris Schuler step it up this year. The midfield and attacking corps will also rely on some young players for minutes at certain points of the season, so Kreis will be hoping that developing talents like Paulo Jr. and Collen Warner are ready to contribute.
3. Which competition on RSL's docket should be emphasized?
Team members and coaches have openly defined the rather ambitious goal of winning no fewer than three titles in 2011: the U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League and a second MLS Cup to complement the one they secured two years ago.
But setting sights too high in MLS can be a recipe for disaster. A good regular season can easily lead to nothing, as one bad game can mean elimination from any of those knockout tournaments. All of RSL's pretty attacking play will come to little if the squad ends up empty-handed again come November.
With depth a question, the competitions will have to be prioritized. Could Kreis take the bold step of sacrificing a possible Supporters Shield to battle-test his backups and keep his first team fresh for other competitions and the MLS playoffs?
Biggest X factor: Paulo Jr.
The young Brazilian forward is a good preseason fantasy value -- untested and virtually unknown coming into 2011, he's a solid bet to make a substantial offensive contribution on a good team that will score goals.
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With Robbie Findley gone and Argentine striker Fabian Espindola prone to fits of inconsistency, Paulo Jr. will get his chances this year to improve on the flashes of fine form he displayed in limited opportunities late in 2010. Some supporting work from him on the striking end would go a long way toward turning Real Salt Lake from a contender into a champion. But the youngster is still unproven, so it's tough to know exactly what to expect of him.
Breakout player to watch: Will Johnson
For those who appreciate work rate and soccer IQ, the Canadian international has been a joy to watch develop under Kreis' tutelage. The 24-year-old already has a rather impressive career trajectory, having spent a season with Chicago before heading overseas to try his luck in Holland. After a year and a half of improving play in MLS, Johnson is set for an even bigger role in 2011, even if his stat lines don't match his work rate and intangibles.
Outlook:More than a few MLS teams have turned over half their rosters to prepare for the new season, while change in Salt Lake can be summed up simply enough: three players in, three players out. The team took only one player in January's draft, and added midfielder Arturo Alvarez and forward Cody Arnoux. The only player of note to leave was American World Cup veteran Findley.
On a team that relies heavily on chemistry to create an end product more than the sum of its parts, the low turnover is an advantage which can't be overestimated. To add to the fluid and prolific offense that produced a 2010 MLS-high goal total, RSL also boasted last year's stingiest defense and the league's defender of the year in Jamison Olave. Throw in an unprecedented unbeaten streak at home, and Salt Lake is clearly a leading contender for the Supporters' Shield.
Yet questions remain. Kreis may have been content to keep his roster intact over the offseason, but he failed to secure the depth he's likely to need over the grind of the chase for three titles. What's more, while RSL has had outstanding success playing excellent soccer over the long run, last year teams found ways to stop it in short tournament formats. Unfortunately for Salt Lake, American soccer doesn't reward consistency with hardware. Finding a way to win in the knockout format, and repeat the success of 2009, will be the key to RSL's 2011 season.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.