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Mar 23, 2010

Cup Run Will Boost RSL's Confidence

2009 record and finish: 11-12-7, 40 points; qualified for playoffs and won MLS Cup. Key additions: M Luis Gil (Pateadores), D Raushawn McKenzie (Kansas City), G Tim Melia (Rochester Rhinos), F Alvaro Saborio (FC Sion/Bristol City), M Collen Warner (University of Portland/Portland Timbers U23). Key losses: M Clint Mathis (Los Angeles), F Yura Movsisyan (Randers FC), G Chris Seitz (Philadelphia). Key questions facing team: 1. Can RSL figure out how to win on the road? Elevation is a factor in RSL's favor. And maybe, the players simply miss their well-manicured Sandy field when they leave home. Last season, RSL had a 2-11-2 road record, plus a U.S. Open Cup loss at Seattle. The team's all-time away mark is 10-52-17 in five seasons. Coach Jason Kreis requires a high level of fitness, so RSL players are able to maintain their pressing style in road games. But RSL has produced more than two away wins in a season only once. But it did win away when it counted -- a 3-2 victory at Columbus in the first round of the playoffs last year. 2. Goalkeeping depth? Kyle Reynish has played a total of 55 minutes in two seasons backing up Nick Rimando and Chris Seitz. RSL has enough confidence in Reynish to allow Seitz to depart, but signed Tim Melia (Rochester Rhinos) as insurance. 3. Too many strikers? This should not be an unpleasant problem. Kreis has four potential starters: Pablo Campos, Robbie Findley, Fabian Espindola and newcomer Saborio. But only two of them will be starters, leaving the others to conform to a reserve role. Findley (12 goals) led the team in scoring last season, starting the year as a sub, then pairing with Movsisyan (8 goals) to propel the team to the title. Findley, because of his speed, can change the dynamic of a game off the bench. But it might be difficult to convince Findley to return to that role, especially since he might need to be in a starting role in order to be considered for a World Cup call-up.

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Biggest X Factor: Ned Grabavoy-Andy Williams A good combination to replace Mathis, Grabavoy, 27, could just be reaching his peak; he is mobile enough to be effective on the wing and experienced and skilled enough to move inside. Williams, 32, is a playmaker who can open the field with defense-splitting passes and cannon-long-range shooting. Williams has been producing at a high level since leading Jamaica to the 1998 World Cup as a teenager, finally winning a championship last season. Breakout Player to Watch: Alvaro Saborio Saborio produced impressive scoring totals in Costa Rica and Switzerland, but struggled with Bristol City, scoring only twice in 21 matches. Saborio has contributed 22 goals in 55 games for Costa Rica, including a second-minute strike in a 3-1 victory over the U.S. in World Cup qualifying last year. When he was 21, Saborio scored 27 goals for CD Saprissa, and he has yet to match that season. But this move could revive his career. Outlook: No reason to change a successful group. Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave provide a physical presence in front of goalkeeper Rimando. Robbie Russell, who provided the clinching penalty kick against Los Angeles in the MLS Cup final, will be challenged by Tony Beltran at right back, and Chris Wingert returns at left back. Kyle Beckerman supports Javier Morales in midfield, with either Grabavoy or Williams on the right and Will Johnson on the left. First-year pros Luis Gil and Collen Warner add midfield depth, though Gil, 16, will be in an apprentice role. RSL is loaded with strikers. Kreis has kept the core of the team together since 2007, the combination of consistency and some inspired acquisitions paying off. Despite the team's high talent level, Findley is the only possible player to be lost to international duty. The team's excellent playoff run and championship should mean it is confident from the start. But RSL might have to do better in the regular season; a year ago, it qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. And RSL has yet to achieve a winning record during a regular season, last year finishing a game under .500, then capitalizing on playing the opening playoff game at home for a victory over the Crew.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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