Real Salt Lake in 2015 was a club in transition. It showed as the once powerhouse club in the Western Conference finished the Major League Soccer (MLS) Regular Season in ninth place with 41 points and a (W-L-D) 11-15-8 record.
Real finished the season 10 points away from sixth place Sporting Kansas City - they held the final playoff spot. This season proved to be RSL’s second worst in their 11-year existence. The worst is a tie between 2006 and 2007 when they finished last in the West.
RSL since 2008 had always made the playoffs, and also appeared in two MLS Cup Finals (2009 and 2013). They even won the title in 2009 against the Los Angeles Galaxy in penalties at Qwest Field (Present day CenturyLink Field). Not to mention the Royals fought their way to a CONCACAF Champions League final in the 2010-2011 version. They were denied CONCACAF glory by a single goal, as they were defeated by C.F. Monterrey 3-2 in a two leg series. However, those days are over and the players on those squads have left the team or are getting ready for life after soccer.
One thing this season has in common with the other three years RSL failed to make the playoffs, they ended the season with a negative goal differential. In 2005, they finished with a negative 35. The next year Real improved but they still finished with negative four. In 2007, their offense and defense took a step back as they finished with negative 14.
This season was no different for RSL. They only scored 38 times and conceded 48 goals in 34 games. The Royals ended 2015 with a disappointing negative 10. It was not just the defense that under performed, but the offense was non-existence for the majority of the year.
The best example of their offensive struggle was Javier Morales finishing the season with the most goals, with eight. When a clubs highest scorer in 34 games finishes the campaign with less than double digits then the problem is clear, a forward is needed and fast.
It does not matter that U.S. international goalkeeper Nick Rimando is between the posts for RSL. If the offense can make the opposing club sweat then the defense collapsing is inevitable.
That being said, RSL head coach Jeff Cassar and the rest of management are already making changes in the offseason.
Seven players will not be returning to Rio Tinto Stadium next season. The players are: defenders Phanuel Kavita (option declined), Demar Phillips (option declined), Elías Vásquez (option declined), Chris Schuler (out of contract), midfielders Pecka (option declined), Luis Gil (out of contract) and Luis Silva (out of contract).
It is clear that RSL is cleaning house and following a new plan of getting back to the playoffs. However, the club has only brought in one player as of now, homegrown midfielder/defender Danilo Acosta. With Acosta, the current roster size is 22 out of a possible 28.
Real have plenty of spaces to fill, but the one position that they need to replenish right away is the forwards. Not because of the pool size, since at the moment there are five strikers on the roster, but because of how ineffective and inconsistent they were in 2015.
The five forwards combined for 16 goals in the regular season. Argentinean forward and designated player Sebastian Jaime led the group with five goals. The Royals offense is in desperate need of a striker that can finish more consistently.
Also, RSL needs to start getting ready for life in the midfield after Kyle Beckerman and Morales. Both players are starting to show signs of slowing down, which is to be expected since Beckerman is the younger one at the age of 33 (Morales 35).
Forwards, goalies and even defenders can still play at a high level in their 30’s. However, midfielders on the other hand do not always last that long. At times there are exceptions like Carlos Valderrama, Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonso and a few others, but Cassar would be wise not to take that chance.
The defense also needs some tuning up, mainly due to the lack of experience on the backline. Jámison Olave, Tony Beltran and Abdoulie Mansally have a combined 464 games. However, the other four players have a combined 46 appearances between them. If Olave, Beltran or Mansally get injured, suspended or simply leave the club, then the defense of RSL will be exposed and Rimando will be in for a long season.
RSL has a mountain of tasks to complete before the season starts in March. However, the good news for the Royals is that the January Transfer Market Window is open and the 2016 MLS SuperDraft is just right around the corner, so Cassar and the rest of management have many opportunities to shore up the roster before Real kicks off their 12th season.
2015 MLS Grade: D