Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 6, 2013) US Soccer Players - In Portland on Sunday, Will Johnson prowled the middle at Jeld-Wen Field, winning balls and launching attacks in his usual energetic style. Fabian Espindola roamed the forward line, chasing down passes into space and peppering the goals with shots whenever remotely possible. Jamison Olave stood at his usual place in the center of the backline, doing his best to keep up with crafty forwards and late-running midfielders determined to score.
Unlike the years past, none of those players were doing those things for Real Salt Lake. Instead, Johnson is part of the revitalization of the Timbers under Caleb Porter, and helped his new team execute a comeback against the New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls are the new employers of Espindola and Olave, former RSL fixtures traded in the offseason in a bid to cut salary. Both of them scored on Sunday, before Johnson and the Timbers roared back to tie the score.
Just a few hours after the Timbers and Red Bulls played to an exciting stalemate with former RSL players littering the field, a new look Real Salt Lake completed a 2-0 season opening win over the San Jose Earthquakes. No Johnson, no Olave, no Espindola--no problem. Facing the defending Supporters Shield winners and scorers of a league-high 72 goals last season, Real Salt Lake shut out the Quakes. Holdover Alvaro Saborio scored twice to start the new era on a successful note. Across the field, fresh-faced players tipped to replace the departed generation stepped expertly into their roles, adding credence to the contention that RSL’s 2013 isn’t a rebuilding year, but just another season in the continuing success of the club under Garth Lagerwey and Jason Kreis.
Lagerwey and Kreis consciously prepared for the inevitable reconstitution of a team that won an MLS Cup, qualified for the playoffs five consecutive years and appeared in the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League despite lacking the resources of teams like LA or Seattle. Even while remaining strong contenders for the MLS Cup title from year-to-year, RSL methodically collected younger talent not only to fill holes in the lineup when needed (while so many other teams did so with journeyman), but to groom for the looming future. If RSL was going to manage a cap- and age-mandated changing of the guard with ease, stockpiling a group of younger players who would be ready when the time came was crucial.
Those players passed their first test on Sunday. In addition to the off-season turnover, RSL faced San Jose with several of its most important players out injured. Star midfielder Javier Morales was missing, as was center back Nat Borchers. In their places started Sebastian Velasquez, an exciting, skilled youngster drafted out of junior college in 2012, and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, a 26-year old defender RSL acquired for a fourth round draft pick last year.
In Olave’s former place was Chris Schuler, the man who made the Colombian defender expendable. At 25, Schuler is just now coming into his own as a fourth year pro. Jason Kreis is high enough on the former Creighton star that the words “U.S. Men’s National Team” have come up more than once. Schuler’s development over three seasons meant trading Olave to New York wasn’t nearly as painful as it might have been, or alternatively, that Schuler’s rise to first eleven quality coincided perfectly with the right time to cut bait on the 31-year old, oft-injured, Olave. Even if Olave shines in New York, RSL will feel comfortable with the choice they made to pass the baton to Schuler.
The same is true of Luis Gil, a 19-year old star in the making tasked with filling Will Johnson’s role in the RSL midfield. Johnson’s influence over RSL rise to MLS prominence can hardly be overstated. Over the course of four years, Johnson played an integral role as a wing midfielder in Real Salt Lake’s fluid passing attack. When RSL signed Gil three years ago as a raw teenager, there was an expectation that he’d eventually assume a spot in the starting lineup. Although Johnson is just 26 and far from fading as a player, Gil’s progress enabled RSL to trade Johnson and transition without fear the job is too big.
On Sunday, the experienced spine of their team led Real Salt Lake, the veteran players deemed too important to lose during the offseason transition. Captain Kyle Beckerman was there, calmly breaking up attacks and moving the ball along from his defensive midfield position. Alvaro Saborio remained the point of the spear, always capable to punishing defenders, as he did ultimately did twice. Nick Rimando was in goal, still an acrobatic shot stopper and heady distributor from the back, benefiting slightly from San Jose’s foibles in from of net, but nevertheless maintaining order with a new pair of center backs.
Beckerman played provider on the first RSL goal, sending a ball over the top to Saborio, who put the ball past John Busch in the San Jose net. New acquisition Joao Plata, another young talent likely to play a role throughout RSL’s season, provided the second assist. Gil gave a good account of himself despite only just returning from the CONCACAF U20 Championships, flashing briefly the skill that made installing him in the starting lineup a no-brainer. Velasquez did the same.
Real Salt Lake’s goodbyes to players like Johnson, Espindola, and Olave were only hard because they had so honorably acquitted themselves during the time the club rose to become a standout MLS franchise. Those goodbyes were not all that hard when it came to the team on the field, where Lagerwey and Kreis stashed talent and made moves designed to make the transition from one set of players to the next as seamless as possible. Essential veterans stayed with the club. Well-drilled replacements were carefully cultivated over time.
Real Salt Lake took out last year’s best regular season team, held them scoreless, and collected three points on the road. One game won’t make or break the success of RSL’s new program, but it does provide healthy bit of confidence with which to move forward.
In other words, so far, so good.
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