The 2023 MLS season will be here before we know it, and MLSNow is continuing to release season previews for all 29 teams. Next up is Real Salt Lake, a club that could look the same while looking a lot different this year. Let's dive in and see what exactly is going on in Utah.
Understanding what the club will look like in 2023 starts with 2022. Last season was the first under new ownership, which has since created an uptick in spending. But the 2022 team struggled with consistency -- the club was second in the West at the end of June before ultimately sneaking into the playoffs on Decision Day, good for the same playoff seed as 2021.
Record: 12-11-11 (47 points - 7th in the West)
Team Leader, Goals: Sergio Cordova (9), Jefferson Savarino (7)
Team Leader, Assists: Justin Meram (7), Andrew Brody, Maikel Chang, Jefferson Savarino (6)
The consistency issues from last year are also the biggest question marks of 2023. If RSL can successfully string together results without falling off late in the season, the club could quietly make some noise. MLS is as much about reliability and form at the right time as it is about talent. Obviously better talent leads to more consistency, but coaching can have a big impact as well, at least in Salt Lake.
For example, Jefferson Savarino's seven goals and six assists in 2022 all came in the second half of the season after he rejoined the club in the summer window. However, he had a 10 game stretch at the end of the year where he only scored two goals and contributed two assists. During those games he was primarily used as a second striker instead of in his natural winger position. If head coach Pablo Mastroeni chooses to experiment with Savarino centrally again, production may also drop again, leading to the same inconsistencies that have long plagued RSL.
Mastroeni may be motivated to continue playing Savarino at striker because of his team's thinness at the position. Leading goalscorer Sergio Cordova is gone, as is backup Bobby Wood. While Cordova's nine goals were not that impressive of a number, he did score the most on the team, regardless of how great, or not, he looked. The closest RSL has to a replacement is either a SuperDraft pick or Damir Kreilach, who only made five appearances in 2022 before dealing with a back injury.
Also gone from various positions are defenders Aaron Herrera, Johan Kappelhof, Jaziel Orozco and Tate Schmitt; midfielders Nick Besler and Bret Halsey; and forward Chris Garcia.
New ownership's increased spending has helped make up for those losses. Having Savarino, midfielder Braian Ojeda and defender Bryan Oviedo for a full season will help, and the club brought in another winger in Carlos Andrés Gómez. A club-record transfer fee helped acquire Gómez, who is a U22 signing. The acquisition of left back Brayan Vera has also been widely reported, but the deal has yet to be made official.
While the additions of Gómez and Vera, along with a healthy Kreilach, brings optimism about an improved finish in the table, RSL is still a work in progress. Obviously there is plenty of time to improve the roster before the transfer window closes at the end of April, but the season starts in two weeks. Mastroeni has previously stated his belief that a player likely cannot make a full impact without a preseason, and the preseason ship has pretty much sailed.
The two signings also come in areas that were already well-covered. Gómez likely replaces Justin Meram in the starting lineup on the left wing, while Vera replaces Herrera at right back after RSL traded him to Montreal in the offseason. The second move does allow Andrew Brody to play on his natural right side, with Vera a natural left back, but Herrera is one of the best crossing fullbacks in the league. And while Meram did slow down at the end of 2022, he still had a team-high seven assists to go along with three goals.
What remains to be seen is if Gómez and Vera can provide significant upgrades at already strong positions. There is also doubt about how effective Gómez in particular can be while questions continue at striker.
The other concern with bringing in players at already deep positions is the team is now dangerously thin in several spots, including center back, right back and striker. A few injuries in the wrong places could see RSL plummet to the bottom of the league.
RSL could very well have an excellent season. But, like usual, the club needs a lot to go right for that to happen. Ongoing chemistry and year-by-year improvements will likely make the Claret and Cobalt better than expected, so long as they keep it together as the season grinds teams down.
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