Editor's note: This is the 12th of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. New York will be previewed Tuesday.
2008 record and finish: 10-10-10, third in West, advanced to conference final
Key losses: F Fabian Espindola, F Kenny Deuchar, M Dema Kovalenko, M Nathan Sturgis, D Nik Besagno, F Kenny Cutler
Key questions facing Real Salt Lake:
1. Has the team improved enough from 2008?
Real's near-miss bid for an initial MLS Cup appearance might partially obscure the fact that the side defined "average" in 2008 (a 10-10-10 record). Manager Jason Kreis seems to be gambling that some of his young players will keep maturing and potentially rising stars will keep, well, rising. Because while a few significant pieces have been jettisoned, Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey have done little so far to fortify the roster.
The club lost some bite when it traded aging-but-influential midfielder Dema Kovalenko to Los Angeles for allocation money and conditional draft picks. Kenny Deuchar, who arrived at camp a year ago as a touted, top-choice striker, was released and moved on without a transfer fee. The club opted not to pick up the purchase option on talented forward Fabian Espindola. And Nathan Sturgis, who couldn't escape the injury bug but remains a promising talent, moved to Seattle in the expansion draft.
Kreis says he and Lagerwey are still looking for players. "But we're in a little different place now," Kreis said. "We feel like now if we add a player, he's got be a good one. He's got to be clearly be a starter or of starting caliber."
New York at Seattle
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Can the team find a scorer -- or is a breakout striker already on site?
There can be no question that a lack of proficiency and killer instinct near the opposition goal held back RSL last season. Yura Movsisyan might or might not be the guy to provide those things. He's done it in flashes, but consistency will be the key this season.
Robbie Findley might have taken a small step back last season after such a promising rookie campaign in 2007. He is growing, however, with noticeable improvement in 2008 on creating his own shot. If RSL can find another striker to pair with Movsisyan, the speedy Findley looks like the ideal weapon to introduce in the final 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Can the team keep Chris Seitz on the bench much longer?
The time is coming when the third-year goalkeeper, rich with potential, will not be content to sit quietly behind reliable incumbent Nick Rimando. And at some point, it will be pointless to hold onto such a potentially lucrative chip in the personnel market.
There surely are other MLS clubs that would part with a serviceable piece to lay their hands on this promising young American, who was Brad Guzan's backup this past fall on Peter Nowak's Olympic side.
3. How close is RSL to having a truly A-list midfield?
This is a well-balanced bunch. Javier Morales had league MVP-type numbers last season (six goals, 15 assists) and would have received more consideration for the award if not for Guillermo Barros Schelotto's amazing campaign at Crew Stadium. Kyle Beckerman is tough and reasonably rangy at the defensive midfield spot. Canadian international Will Johnson has a good two-way game on the left and could be in for a breakout campaign. Options on the right include Clint Mathis and Andy Williams.
4. What should be expected out of Clint Mathis?
Kreis heralded what Mathis gave the team last season in terms of grit and effort. Still, no goals and no assists in 11 matches should be concerning, especially considering that Mathis now is 32 and not getting any younger.
One thing Kreis hopes regarding Mathis is that the public manages expectations. The former U.S. international is no longer a 25-year-old forward with his sights set on 15-goal seasons. Rather, Kreis says, Mathis simply needs to make good choices on the ball and continue to apply reliable defensive pressure, just as he did in 2008, whether it's as a second forward or a wide midfielder.
Biggest X factor: Yura Movsisyan
The Armenian-born, U.S.-schooled striker got hot late last season. RSL rode him right into the 2008 conference final, where the lads from Utah did everything possible to the besieged Red Bull New York except score.
Even if the bid for an MLS Cup appearance fell short, no one can deny the influence of Movsisyan's sizzling late-season form. Now, he must show he can do something similar over an entire season -- while coping with the burden of heightened expectation. It also is a contract year for him, which adds even more pressure.
Kreis worked hard last season with Movsisyan; we'll see whether it pays off in terms of better choices on the ball and improved consistency overall. Movsisyan's ability to strike regularly could be the difference between a middling season for RSL and a memorable one.
Breakout player to watch: Chris Wingert
|John Harkes' Take:|
|"Well, moving into the new stadium was something they had to transition to toward the end of last season, so they [need to] make that a true home base. They've got good fan support, so that shouldn't be a problem. Jason Kreis doesn't have to make too many changes to the team, but losing Kovalenko could hurt them a little bit. They [have to] get used to playing on the grass; they're not playing on turf anymore. Will Johnson did a good job coming in there -- took a little while for him to transition, but he should have a little more game experience under his feet playing in the system. And then Movsisyan I think is a player to watch. He's very exciting, got lots of pace and he likes to take people on up front and he's a goal scorer, so it'll be interesting to keep an eye on him in 2009."|
While Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave received some attention for their work in the middle last season, Wingert's slow-and-steady progress went largely unnoticed.
He can play at either fullback spot, and his development was rewarded with some time in Bob Bradley's national team camp in January. Wingert might have the tools to climb even higher in 2009, to become an elite defender in MLS. He'll have to work a little harder to be a more consistent offensive threat, and he'll have to tidy up the one-on-one defending just a bit, but Kreis says the young American has it in him.
This team is undeniably moving in the right direction, but it's too early to call Kreis' club a contender just yet. At center back, Borchers is solid, but the talented Olave still has a costly tendency to lose concentration at critical junctures.
The midfield lacks depth. And can the club repeat its league-best record at home (8-1-6) now that it no longer has that awful turf at Rice-Eccles to rattle, distract and disconcert opponents?
Still, there's enough to like about the Utah side, including that sweet new stadium. (Rio Tinto opened late last season.) Morales is the kind of special player who could drive the team past average status. (How many more assists could he have had last season with a real goal-scoring beast to supply?) Anything less than the playoffs would be a step back. To get beyond the first round and certainly to go any further, they still need to reinforce some weak points here and there.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.