2015 regular season: 9th Western Conference (16th overall)
MLS Cup odds: 40/1
Players in: Danilo Acosta (Homegrown), Omar Holness (SuperDraft), Yura Movsisyan (Spartak Moscow, loan), Sunny Obayan (free), Emery Welshman (Real Monarchs), Chris Wingert (waivers)
Players out: Elías Vasquez (option declined), Pecka (option declined), Chris Schuler (out of contract), Luis Gil (out of contract), Luis Silva (out of contract), Sebastian Saucedo (Veracruz, loan), Sebastian Jaime (mutual contract termination), Abdoulie Mansally (Houston Dynamo, trade)
Despite losing Nat Borchers, Carlos Salcedo, Christ Wingert and Ned Grabavoy last offseason, Real Salt Lake went into 2015 confident of extending their seven-year playoff run. However, a preseason injury to Joao Plata left the team toothless up top, and after head coach Jeff Cassar opted to scrap their trademark 4-4-2 diamond formation, the new 4-3-3 system simply didn’t have the desired effect. Struggling to find cohesion, the Utah outfit ended up netting just 38 goals on the campaign and fell short of a postseason berth for the first time since 2007.
There have since been some notable departures over the winter, with Luis Gil, Luis Silva and Sebastian Jamie all leaving on the back of Alvaro Saborio’s summer exit, but the core of the roster still remains intact for the most part. Nevertheless, even with new signings Yura Movsisyan and Sunny Obayan balancing out the line-up, getting back to the postseason in a stacked Western Conference will prove no easy task.
Reasons to be positive
RSL made one of the biggest splashes of the MLS offseason when they brought back former fan favourite Movsisyan for his second stint at Rio Tinto Stadium. The on-loan striker has developed into a prolific scorer since leaving for Europe in 2009, netting 80 goals across spells at FC Randers, FC Krasnador and parent club Spartak Moscow, and he should be a prime Golden Boot contender if he can reproduce that form in the States.
The Armenian front man won’t have to carry the entire goalscoring burden either if fellow attackers Juan Manuel Martinez and Plata perform to their full potential. The latter is only two seasons removed from a 13-goal campaign, and while Martinez scored just twice in 10 appearances last term following his August arrival, the former Boca Juniors forward certainly looked threatening at times with his trickery on the right wing. Add Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval into the mix, and it’s easy to see the club blowing away 2015’s 38-goal tally.
Meanwhile, though goalkeeper Nick Rimando, captain Kyle Beckerman and playmaker Javier Morales are all getting up there in the age, the veteran trio are still Best XI-calibre players and the three most important members of the line-up. The two midfielders shouldn’t necessarily need their minutes managed in 2016, but even if they do miss time, new recruit Sunny and holdover Luke Mulholland will help ensure that the centre of the park is still fairly solid.
At the same time, there’s some reason for RSL to be optimistic about the future. First-round pick Omar Holness is already a fully fledged Jamaica international and has the potential to develop into an All-Star midfielder, while fellow youngsters Justen Glad, Jordan Allen, Boyd Okwuonu and Danilo Acosta could all be joining him in the starting XI a few years down the line.
Trouble on the horizon?
While RSL’s attack looks better on paper, the same certainly can’t be said for the backline. 34-year-old Jamison Olave hasn’t aged as well as the other elder statesmen on the roster, and while centre-back partner Aaron Maund was a steady option throughout 2015, he’d be a backup on most teams around the league. Tony Beltran is at least a reliable presence at right-back, but it wouldn’t be hard to find an upgrade over either Demar Phillips or Chris Wingert on the left-hand side of the defence. With not much depth beyond those names, Rimando could be a busy man between the posts this season.
Key man: Javier Morales
Morales once again proved himself to be one of the top players in MLS last term, recording eight goals and 12 assists in 26 appearances, while also leading the league in key passes with 84. Even at 36, the Argentine No. 10 shows no signs of slowing down at this point, and having been handed a new multi-year deal in November, RSL’s front office clearly thinks he can carry their attack for a few more seasons yet.
One to watch: Justen Glad
One of the USA’s top-rated prospects, 2016 could be a big year for Glad. Signed out of high school in April 2014, the 18-year-old defender’s professional debut was delayed by lingering concussion issues, but he finally showed his promise last season in earning six starts and one substitute appearance. Unsurprisingly, there were one or two hiccups along the way, but for someone his age the Under-20 international certainly gave an excellent account of himself. Whether he's ready for a bigger role is up for debate, but with the club’s current issues at centre-back, there could well be a chance for him to see some significant minutes this term.
Predicted regular season finish: 8th Western Conference
While it’s not out of the question that RSL’s veterans help lead them back to the playoffs, a shaky backline and lack of depth means it's hard to be especially confident about their chances. Performances may ultimately improve on the pitch, but in such a tough conference, that still may not be enough to secure a much better finish when all is said and done.