The top league in the United States is about to kick off another season and Goal.com is rolling out informative previews on every team to get fans both old and new caught up on their favorite teams.
Real Salt Lake made history by making the playoffs for the first time last season, but Goal.com's Randy Davis expects even better in 2009.
Recent history: Real Salt Lake began last season extremely strong at home and extremely poor on the road. In retrospect this was logical for a team that proved to be talented, but young. The team finished strong, although only managing to achieve a 10-10-10 record, and needing a last second goal to make it into the playoffs for the first time in club history.
Once in the playoffs, the team surprised most by upsetting Chivas USA, and by playing well at home against the Red Bulls in the Western Conference Finals but failing to put the ball in the net. All-in-all, the team enjoyed success and surpassed expectations after finishing at the bottom of the table in the year prior.
Dearly departed: The team lost four senior roster players from last season: Dema Kovalenko, Kenny Deuchar, Fabian Espindola, and Nate Sturgis. Nate Sturgis has promise but was oft-injured and was selected by Seattle in the expansion draft. Kenny “Dr. Goals” Deuchar arrived on the scene last season with much fanfare, but never made much of an impact.
Dema Kovalenko may prove to be a significant loss as his veteran leadership and his biting style of play in the defensive midfield proved to be important for the team last season.
Fabian Espindola was the most efficient goal scorer for the team, netting five goals in eight starts. The player most known for his late-season back-flip chose to take a more lucrative offer in Venezuela.
New faces: Real Salt Lake made perhaps the most surprising selection of the draft, when they selected Jean Alexandre from Lynn University in the first round. He is unlikely to have an impact with the team in his rookie season, but may instead prove to be the defensive midfielder of the future for this team as the team remains focused on building a strong “spine” for the team.
The team has also reportedly signed Dutch left-winger Rachid El-Khalifi who is likely to at least compete for a starting role on a team bereft of left-sided players.
Another player that the team currently has on trial is the enigmatic Luis Miguel Escalada. The young Argentine striker had two excellent seasons in 2006 and 2007 at Emelec and LDU Quito respectively where he scored 45 goals in 78 games. However, he went silent in 2008 and has reportedly had fitness issues in the past. If not Escalada, Jason Kreis will undoubtedly keep the search up for a striker to pair with the emergent Yura Movsisyan. If the team fails to upgrade this position, then this will likely remain a weakness throughout 2009.
Season storylines: The team showed a solid defense and a very talented midfield in 2008. Most of these pieces remain intact and should improve with another year together.
The main focus coming into this season will be to upgrade the overall attacking ability. If Yura Movsisyan continues his late season form for last year, he will need a quality and consistent striking partner to help ease the goal scoring burden.
In addition, the team has made the move to a new stadium, with a much wider pitch and a grass surface. They will need to add greater width to their game to try to equal or improve on the home record from a year ago which featured a single loss.
Predicted placement: Although an eventual outcome is difficult to predict this early on, it seems that Real Salt Lake should improve on last season’s record. They may still struggle with road consistency, and may have trouble replicating last season’s home record. Mark them down for second in the Western Conference.
Did you know? Real Salt Lake led the league in 2008 in both shots and shots on goal, but only outscored three teams in the league.
Randy Davis is a regular contributor to Goal.com