After watching the rest of the league kick off the season last week, RSL is set to open their schedule on the road at Minnesota United. As the club begins its 17th season in MLS, let's take a look at the midfielders and forwards we will likely see. Cal Westfall will have the preview on defenders and goalkeepers, which you can find here.
Coach Freddy Juarez typically plays a 4-5-1, with two holding midfielders, an attacking midfielder, two wingers, and a lone striker up top.
I will break down the depth at each position, including who I expect to start.
Expected Starters - Damir Kreilach and Pablo Ruiz
Kreilach recently received the DP tag this offseason, and he has consistently been one of RSL's best players in recent seasons. While he has played everywhere from holding midfield, attacking midfield, and striker, expect most of his minutes to come from the holding position. He is more attack minded than your average holding midfielder, but this is where he fits best in the system. Kreilach is a strong player who can defend well, but he is also a great presence on the attacking end. He was RSL's leading goal scorer in 2020, notching 8 goals on 20 shots on goal. If RSL has any hope at success this year, they will need a monster year out of Kreilach.
After featuring for the RSL Monarchs in the USL in 2019, Ruiz broke through with the first team and started in 15 games last season. The 22 year old Argentine is one of the most promising youngsters on the roster. It will be exciting to see his growth after another full pre-season and an expected spot next to Kreilach, who will help Ruiz be tactically sound. The one concern with Ruiz is if he and Kreilach both get caught up the pitch at the same time, exposing the back line. The youngster will have to be strong positionally in order for RSL to have a good season.
Depth Pieces - Nick Besler, Everton Luiz
Everton will likely be the first man off the bench in this position, and will probably start in several games due to roster rotation in a condensed season. He was the starter at the beginning of last season before being overtaken by Ruiz. Besler is a serviceable replacement for the position, and he may be a depth option at center back as well.
Expected Starter - Albert Rusnak
Rusnak is RSL's other designated player, and his performance is essential to the team's success. When he is on his game, RSL does well. A big part of the reason why RSL struggled last year is because he also struggled. He had 3 goals and 2 assists in 16 games. For a designated player that is pulling the strings on the attack, he needs to do much better. He has a tendency to disappear from games and not make an impact over 90 minutes. With that said, he does change the game when he does show up. In 2019, when RSL finished 3rd in the West, he had 10 goals and 5 assists, leading the team in both categories. A similar performance this year will drastically alter RSL's chances, and it may determine his playing future as his contract is up at the end of the season.
Kreilach usually fills in for Rusnak when he is away on international duty for Slovakia. Other than that, RSL does not have many options at the position, although it remains to be seen how versatile Anderson Julio (projected winger) and Rubio Rubin (projected striker) are.
Expected Starters - Justin Meram and Anderson Julio
Meram should start on the left. A long-time MLS veteran, this will be his 11th year in the league and second with RSL. He brings consistency to the roster and maturity both on and off the field. He will not be the guy to light up the stat sheet, but his intangibles will be an important part of maintaining a club identity. With the condensed schedule, it will be interesting to see how many games he starts. While he may be one of the most heavily rotated players on the roster, there are plenty of young wingers in the ranks waiting to prove themselves.
Julio is new to RSL this season, joining the club after one season with Atletico San Luis in Liga MX. Prior to playing in Mexico, he was a star for his club in Ecuador, notching career highs in 2018 with 13 goals and 10 assists, while also winning a cup title in 2019. While there are a lot of unknowns about Julio, he has the potential to be a star this season. There is room for an immediate on-field impact, and if he performs well he might find himself being a star at RSL for years to come. RSL fans are hoping for great things on the right side of the pitch, and he may find some time at striker as well, especially if RSL switches to a two striker lineup at any point.
Depth Pieces - Maikel Chang, Justin Portillo, Milan Iloski, Jeizon Ramirez, Christopher Garcia
RSL is deep on the wings, with many of them being unproven academy players who may not even be wingers. Chang and Ramirez are the two to keep an eye on this year. Chang started most of last year, and will likely be the sacrificed starter with Julio joining the roster, although he should push Meram for minutes. Ramirez is a young designated player, but only appeared in 10 games last season, averaging eight minutes a game. He was the go-to time wasting sub last year, and he also provided significant pace and enthusiasm in the dying moments of games. RSL fans are hopeful that he can live up to his expensive contract and earn valuable minutes this year. Arriving in a foreign country mere weeks before a pandemic certainly did not help his development, so it will be interesting to see what the coaching staff can do with him after a full off season.
Expected Starter - Rubio Rubin
Rubin is also a new addition this year, joining the team after scoring seven goals in five matches with USL side San Diego Loyal. Rubin has played in European academies, Liga MX, and the second division in Mexico where he was coached by Diego Maradona. It will be interesting to see if his USL success translates to the MLS level, but if it does RSL has a glaring need on the goal scoring end that he can fill. The club barely scored one goal a game last season, so any improvement will be greatly appreciated by the club and fans.
Expected Reserve/Starter - Bobby Wood
Wood used to be a staple with the USMNT under Jurgen Klinsmann, but he has lost form in recent years while playing in the Bundesliga 2 league. Part of this is due to injuries, so his health will play a large role in his success. If Wood can find his old form, he will be the weekly starter and has the potential to be one of the best in the league. He is not with the team yet as he is awaiting the birth of his child in Denmark, and is expected to arrive in Salt Lake anywhere between the end of the month and early July.
It will be interesting to see how the team dynamic changes with the arrival of Wood. He will have to acclimate himself to his new club and their tactics, but he could easily become a starter in a short amount of time. If Rubin has a good start to the season, coach Freddy Juarez will have to get creative with his roster choices in order to keep his top talents on the field.
Depth Pieces - Douglas Martinez, Bode Davis
Davis is an unknown academy player, while Martinez was the starting striker for most of last year. Despite appearing in 18 games, he only had two goals on the season. This poor run of form is why the team has looked elsewhere to bring in new talent up top. Martinez was exceptional for the Monarchs on their way to the 2019 USL championship, but it appears as if he does not quite have what it takes at the top level. He will likely still be a part of the rotation and may start a few games as a part of squad rotations, but it is clear that he is the odd man out with the addition of Rubin and Wood.
There are a lot of unknowns with RSL this season. Some new additions may provide some spark in the attack, but the lack of an owner limited the club's ability to obtain new talent over the offseason, a dangerous sign for a team that was one point away from last in the west last year. The roster make-up could change dramatically over the course of the season depending on the ownership situation, but for now on-field success will be determined by the coaching staff's ability to have players take individual steps forward in their on-field performance.
(Image courtesy of Real Salt Lake)