(Image courtesy of Real Salt Lake)
Hello! I will be providing a season preview for Real Salt Lake, who start their 17th MLS season away at Minnesota United this weekend.
Playing under coach Freddy Juarez, we'll most likely see RSL line up in a 4-5-1, or something close to it. I will be highlighting the defensive side of the squad as well as sharing my expectations for the season; for midfielders and forwards, check out my fellow RSL Correspondent Mike Miller's preview here.
Last year, the club allowed 35 goals in the COVID shortened season, which ranked 7th in the Western Conference. During the 2021 pre-season, RSL had a strong defensive showing, only allowing 1 goal across the three games, resulting in 2 wins and 1 loss. The squad looks to maintain and improve upon these defensive trends by finding their groove and working towards balancing young talent with experience. Building upon a strong defense will be the key to proving critics wrong and pleasing fans in 2021.
Here are my expected starters as of Week 1:
RB- Aaron Herrera
After 20 starts in 2020, Homegrown Player and 2019 RSL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Herrera got off-season minutes with the USMNT and the U-23 USMNT in Olympic Qualifiers. We can expect Herrera to continue to see regular minutes on the defensive side of the ball this year. Although perhaps more defensively minded, I personally am looking forward to seeing how he and the other outside backs connect with the midfield and strikers in transition play as the team tries to find creative combinations. With five assists over the last two years, it's possible to see Herrera play up the wing if the midfield sets up for overloading, but if not, he should be a defensive power throughout the season.
Already a RSL staple, Glad was part of the CB rotation last year. This season, I hope that Glad gets to see more regular minutes and grows into a leadership role as the side looks to fill the space left by Kyle Beckerman. He also received caps for the U-23 USMNT this winter, which point to his growth and expected responsibilities not just for country, but also for club. If Glad stays healthy and plays well this season, he can rally the defense around him.
CB- Marcelo Silva
Although he only started 15 matches in last year's shortened season, Silva ranked 2nd in CB minutes clocked at RSL. This year could be the year to find more consistency for Silva, but he will have to play smarter and avoid too many fouls and card accumulation.
LB- Donny Toia
Also with 20 appearances in 2021, Toia also notched an assist from the back line. He, or anyone else at this position, would also do well to help create options on the outside on top of their normal responsibilities. Toia's eight years of MLS service will only add to the back line's need for experience in the rotation.
More consistent minutes will allow for greater defensive chemistry among the rotation, which is set to incorporate RSL academy products Erik Holt and Aaron Brody as well, who both got multiple starts this preseason. We'll see how the season starts, but it's possible that Holt and Brody quickly move up on my list of expected starters. Other defenders that we can expect to rotate in this year are Noah Powder, Ashtone Morgan. and Bret Halsey. Depending on how the season goes and how the squad stays fit, looking to add to another defensive player (especially a CB) will be one of the team's priorities throughout the season.
GK- David Ochoa
Joining young teammates Herrera and Glad on the USMNT U-23 Olympic Qualifying squad, David Ochoa has stepped up into the national spotlight and is looking like the expected starter for RSL this year. I hope to see him between the sticks as often as possible in order to get more comfortable in his role and direct the defensive efforts from the back. Although he only played in one match in 2020, he was on the bench as backup keeper for 20 matches. As we saw in the OQ matches, there were moments of brightness and moments to improve.
Andrew Putna and Zac MacMath also got preseason starts, so it's possible to see them in goal early this season if Ochoa struggles to settle in or needs a rest. Academy product and teenager Jeff Dewsnup is another option, and although he probably won't see significant minutes for the first team this season, is poised to learn from RSL legend Nick Rimando, who has joined the club as the Academy goalkeeper coach.
If RSL can stay strong defensively and allow fewer goals than last year, I think it's possible for the club to rise in the standings and qualify from the playoffs. Of course, there are many moving parts that need improvement, but I #believe.
In the ongoing ownership crisis mediated by MLS, Interim President John Kimball has provided some sense of stability to the club. However, needed changes in culture and operations cannot occur until a new owner is secured and investments are made. There are still interested buyers, including Jazz owner Ryan Smith, but there have not been any more clear developments. Hopefully success, marked by improvement on the field, will speed up the process to solving some of the off the field issues. Until then, we the fans will keep doing what we can!
Let me know what you think about my predictions on Twitter @calvinjwestfall