Real Salt Lake 2016 Season Review

Real Salt Lake‘s 2016 season came to an end on Wednesday with a 3-1 loss to the LA Galaxy in the knockout round of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

It was an up and down campaign for the Claret and Cobalt in Jeff Cassar‘s third season as head coach. The club got off to a flying start, going unbeaten in their first six games. Through May 1st, they were tied with FC Dallas and Colorado for the best record in MLS.

But the club stumbled down the stretch. They finished winless in their final seven games including a 2-1 loss to the red hot Seattle Sounders in the season finale. As a result, they fell all the way down to a six seed come playoff time.

The underlying positive was returning to the postseason after missing out for the first time since 2007 last year. But the manner in which the season ended has to be a cause for concern. The above mentioned end-of-season skid was tied for the worst in MLS history for a team that made the playoffs.

There was certainly an eclectic mix of good, bad and ugly during RSL’s 2016 campaign. The club has plenty to build on heading into 2017. That said, tough decisions will have to be made as is the case for pretty much every team during the off-season.

Real Salt Lake 2016 Season Review

What Went Right

From a year over year standpoint, RSL showed marked improvement in 2016. The club went from the second worst team in the Western Conference last season to a playoff participant. And there was a time when it looked like they might challenge their resurgent Rocky Mountain rival Colorado for a knockout round bye.

Cassar and general manager Craig Waibel knew they needed to be better in the final third. RSL’s 38 goals in 2015 was the second worst total in the league. Part of the foundation for an improved attack was laid late last year when they signed Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez in the summer transfer window. Then in the offseason came a move to bring in Yura Movsisyan on loan from Russian giants Spartak Moscow. Movsisyan had previously played for RSL from 2007-09.

For the most part, the new additions paid off. RSL realized a nearly 16 percent increase in scoring from last year. Movsisyan’s nine goals in 25 starts was tied for the team lead with Joao Plata. The diminutive Ecuadorian in Plata showed his quality as a provider also, adding 12 assists. That total was tied with the Galaxy’s Giovani dos Santos for sixth best in MLS. And Martinez found the net seven times in his first full season in Claret and Cobalt.

The club received a pleasant surprise this season with the play of center back Justen Glad. The 19-year-old Homegrown made 27 starts and really established himself as among the most talented young defenders in MLS. His 95 interceptions was tied for eighth best in the league. With Jamison Olave getting up there in age, Glad certainly appears to be the future at this position in Salt Lake City.

Movsisyan’s loan move was made a permanent transfer on October 10th. The Armenian international has become a fan favorite and penned a heartfelt letter when the news was announced. Supporters will hope to see him pull in a double digit haul in the goal department next year.

What Went Wrong

Real Salt Lake’s end of season swoon underscores the fact this is an aging roster. It’s particularly true in the midfield. Long-time RSL stalwarts Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales are 34 and 36 respectively. The two have been immensely consistent contributors since they both joined the club in 2007. After all, RSL made two MLS Cup appearances and won it all in 2009 during that time.

But father time may be catching up.

“Javi Mo” mustered just four goals and four assists in 2016. That was his lowest output since 2011 when injuries limited him to just ten appearances. The Argentinian number ten has been an ageless wonder of sorts over the past few seasons. Despite being in his mid-30s, he’s continued to perform at a high level in a role that requires so much.

Morales has been one of many South American playmakers that currently grace the rosters of MLS clubs. Names like Piatti, Valeri, Higuain, Lodeiro, and Kaka come to mind among others. It was a great run while it lasted but 2016 may have offered slight indication that age may finally be catching up with RSL’s all-time leading assist man.

The same could be said of Beckerman. Both him and Morales occupy important roles in central midfield for RSL. In the 4-3-3 that Cassar has used for the most part this year, it’s important for the midfielders to facilitate a seamless transition from defense to attack in buildup. And it seems as if these two don’t cover ground as efficiently as they did earlier in their careers.

Case in point. In RSL’s final six games, they managed just two goals and went 0-4-2 in that span. Not the form you want to be bringing into the playoffs, and sure enough it was a one and done postseason.

Off-Season Plan

It’s pretty clear that RSL have quite a few pieces that they can build around heading into 2017. Movsisyan is now the go-to man up top having signed long-term. Plata continues to be among the more feared attacking wingers in MLS. Glad may be blossoming into a USMNT-caliber central defender. Tony Beltran and Demar Phillips are reliable, high work rate full-backs who combined for eight assists in 2016.

But this team appears to be in need of an infusion of youth, particularly in the midfield. Either that, or Cassar needs to go away from this version of the 4-3-3 which isn’t maximizing Morales or Beckerman’s skill set at this point in their careers. The 4-4-2 diamond worked because it compartmentalized their respective roles. Beckerman was comfortable at the base of the diamond, while Morales excelled at the tip. The current formation, or the personnel in it, made it difficult for RSL to maintain fluidity in the midfield.

One player who’s getting up there in years who should be expected to return is goalkeeper Nick Rimando. The “Wall of the Wasatch” set a few major milestones this season in becoming MLS’ all-time leader in wins and clean sheets. Though his goals against average of 1.33 ballooned a bit from last year, there’s no reason to believe a player who’s still getting USMNT call-ups would not be in the team’s future plans.

2016 was a step in the right direction after missing the playoffs a year earlier. But the finish to the season was miserable at best and an indication the front office has some tough personnel decisions to make in the off-season. Cassar has taken RSL to the playoffs in two of his three seasons in charge since taking over for Jason Kreis. Time will tell if he’s capable of taking this team beyond appearances and having them contend for trophies.