After changing coaches during last season, Real Salt Lake narrowly missed out on the playoffs. Now, in Mike Petke’s first full season, RSL has a plethora of talent and will look to make a lot of noise in the Western Conference in 2018.
Off-Season Grade: B+
While the Claret and Cobalt didn’t splash a ton of cash this off-season, they added solid squad depth and, most importantly, signed 21-year old winger Jefferson Savarino to a permanent deal following his 6-month loan spell from Zulia FC in his native Venezuela. Savarino shined bright last season, notching six goals to go along with five assists in just 22 matches (19 starts).
In almost identical fashion, RSL also inked USMNT January camp call-up Brooks Lennon to a permanent contract following a season-long loan stint from Liverpool where he featured in the U-23’s. In 2017, Lennon was responsible for seven total scores, netting three goals and contributing four assists.
With the young stars freshly signed, the Real Salt Lake front office turned their attention to bolstering their squad depth, adding several more bodies that look to contribute in 2018. Among these include talented Wales international Adam Henley, who aims to battle it out with Homegrown defender Aaron Herrera for the starting RB role while Tony Beltran battles back from knee surgery.
RSL also dipped into TAM twice this off-season, signing a potential #9 in Cadiz CF’s Alredo Ortuño and a midfielder in Damir Kreilach from Union Berlin. Both look to have the skillset to contribute right away, but some foreign imports need a year of MLS to fully adjust. Lastly, RSL brought in a GK to spell the ageless wonder Nick Rimando from time to time. Alex Horwath looks to play in mainly the backup role for Rimando, but has the potential to step in when Rimando’s contract runs out in 2019.
Also worth noting, Real Salt Lake retained two individuals who mean a lot to RSL-- on the pitch, in the locker room, and in the community. Although they seem to be making a push for younger talent, I thought it was a great move to re-sign Rimando and Kyle Beckerman to multi-year deals. These icons of Utah soccer will continue to lead and gel this young talent into MLS, and have plenty left to give between the lines.
Key Player: Albert Rusnák
Albert Rusnák was overshadowed last year with the flashy new acquisitions of Atlanta United, more specifically, Miguel Almirón. However, to the hard-core MLS fan, it was easy to see just how special RSL’s #11 is. In his inaugural season in MLS, Rusnák played a hand in twenty-one goals, scoring seven and assisting in twice as many (T-3rd in MLS). The beautiful thing if you’re a RSL fan? Rusnák didn’t start flourishing until Mike Petke took over. In Petke’s first game at the helm, Rusnák netted a goal and assisted on two more in a 3-0 over Vancouver. Thus, a star was born.
Rusnák had one of the best statistical years to date of a new MLS arrival, leading RSL back from a large gap only to just miss out on the playoffs on Decision Day. He looks to be a safe bet to build on that in 2018, with all of his co-attacking options back and a full year of MLS under his belt. Rusnák is the man who pulls the strings for the Claret and Cobalt, and will aim to fully utilize the potential around him in Joao Plata, Jefferson Savarino, and Brooks Lennon. If Rusnák can duplicate, if not improve, his 2017 form, RSL should be sitting comfortably come Decision Day.
Best Case Scenario: Western Conference Finals
Despite a late playoff charge in 2017, RSL could not overcome a sluggish start and came up just two points shy of securing the six seed in the West. By the end of the season they had the look and make-up of a post-season team. Expectations are high coming into 2018, and if Mike Petke’s squad can improve their away record at all from last season (14 points in 17 games), they look a decent bet to be playing in November. If you didn’t buy stock in RSL last year, do it now. A clinical #9 is the only thing holding this team back from getting back to The MLS Cup.
Barring injuries, I can see THREE Real Salt Lake attackers netting double digits in goals. Between Savarino, Joao Plata, Rusnak, and Lennon, they look to have the West’s most underrated attack.