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Mar 29, 2007

Pressure is on RSL to make the playoffs

Editor's note: This is the eighth of 13 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2007 season.

2006 record and finish: 10-13-9, (last in the Western Conference).

Key additions: F/M Freddy Adu, GK Nick Rimando, GK Chris Seitz, F Luis Tejada

Key losses: GK Scott Garlick, F Jafet Soto, D Douglas Sequiera

Key questions facing the team:

1. Who will anchor the defense?

Usually, the goalkeeper organizes the defenders, but Real Salt Lake was left in something of a lurch with the sudden retirement of veteran goalie Scott Garlick, who was expected to mentor hugely talented draftee Chris Seitz this year. Considering that the defense has no more familiarity with the other goalkeeping option, Nick Rimando, than it has with Seitz, it is possible that Seitz could win the job outright.

Whoever ends up in goal will need help from the experienced players on the backline, and coach John Ellinger expects World Cup centerback Eddie Pope is ready to give that.

"Eddie has had a tremendous preseason. He's looked sharper than I've seen him in three years. The mental and physical strain on his body from being with the national team has taken its toll in the years past. Without that taking place now, he's just performed at a different level for us."

2. Can Ballouchy and Adu work together?

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"Real gets a great goalkeeper in Chris Seitz. He's a guy who has the opportunity to put his mark on the league. He has the opportunity to be the next Joe Cannon, which is saying a lot. He has all the tools. We've known about this kid for a long time -- he's almost an urban legend in California. But he really is the full package. The rest of it is pretty much going to be the Freddy Adu show. Whether he wants to admit it, he's had a couple of miserable years in D.C. with Peter Nowak. Those two just did not get along. This is the first time that I think Freddy will get to enjoy playing. He's in great form right now and he's had a great preseason. All the indications are there that he couldn't be happier in Salt Lake. His agent, Richard Motzkin, told me that for the first time, he thinks that Freddy could really light it up this year."

Eric Wynalda is an ESPN soccer analyst.

It's no secret that Freddy Adu was happy to join Real Salt Lake, but it was clear that part of the reason for that was his expectation that he finally would be playing as an attacking midfielder.

Yet Mehdi Ballouchy won't be brushed aside so easily. Though he struggled at times during his 2006 rookie season, Ballouchy has found his footing in the league. His numerous assists in preseason play confirmed his dedication. The team has rewarded his tenacity.

"We feel pretty comfortable with Mehdi playing attacking mid and Freddy playing left forward," said Ellinger.

Ballouchy was optimistic about the partnership.

"We're doing a 4-3-3, and we defend kind of in the 4-5-1. Freddy is playing on the left side, so he has more time on the ball and more space. That's where he is most dangerous. He does come in a lot and we interchange a lot."

Adu himself saw positives to the alignment.

"I have the freedom to be up front, because our attacking midfielder is Mehdi. I don't have a lot of defensive responsibilities like I did with DC. I have more freedom. It's the same position that Ronaldinho plays on Barcelona."

3. Will off-field pressure distract the players?

Owner Dave Checketts did not mince words when speaking to the squad recently, telling them that making the playoffs was a necessity. "The added pressure from Dave is not really added pressure, because we're all putting pressure on ourselves to make the playoffs anyway, me included," said John Ellinger.

Some within Real, however, admitted that the team had been under a certain amount of heat already.

"There's no more excuses. This year is a playoff year for us. Anything less is a disappointment, for me, for the team, and everybody," said Ballouchy.

The chance to impress the teams abroad at the U-20 World Cup also might divert Adu's focus from RSL.

"The U20 World Cup is a make-or-break tournament for me, to be honest," said Adu.

Biggest X-factor: Team chemistry.

Team captain Jason Kreis recently has completed a switch from forward to the midfield, so it will be partly his responsibility to feed, via assists, goals to a player who hungers for them, Jeff Cunningham.

Coincidentally, the more successful Kreis might be at this task, the sooner Cunningham could eclipse the record Kreis now holds with pride -- no one else has scored more goals in the league at 108 and counting.

"We've got a player right now here in Salt Like who has 90 (goals) and possesses the ability to score 20 in a season," said Kreis. "He could overtake me this year."

On and off the field, Kreis is the consummate professional, while Cunningham is prone to outbursts and emotional behavior.

"It's an interesting occupation that we're in," said Kreis. "You have to figure out how to get the best out of everybody, even those who might not think the same way as you do."

If Kreis can balance out the volatility of Cunningham to keep the squad on an even keel, RSL can better weather difficulties through the year.

At times last season, Real was as good as any team in the league. On other occasions, it would fold like pliant laundry.

Breakout player to watch: Mehdi Ballouchy

Seitz is one to watch and might become the first goalkeeper since Brad Guzan to earn a regular starting spot on his team in his rookie year, but Ballouchy seems primed for a big season.

"It's my second year," said Ballouchy, "I know how the game is played in the MLS."

The high-profile signings have eased the scrutiny on Ballouchy, which seemed to intimidate him last season.

"There's Freddy [Adu], there's Jeff Cunningham," said Ballouchy of team attention. "I'm not first or second. For me, it's good because it takes some of the pressure off."

Outlook

Checketts finally gets his wish -- Real Salt Lake seems ready to put the pieces together and make it into the playoffs for the first time.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.