Heading into the 2014 MLS season, Real Salt Lake appointed a new head coach in Jeff Cassar to replace the highly successful Jason Kreis. Given Kreis’ accomplishments at Rio Tinto Stadium, a lot of fans were nervous about the upcoming campaign under new leadership.
However, RSL has quietly surged to the top of the Western Conference following its 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders on Saturday afternoon. Salt Lake has 42 points after 24 games, with a one-point lead over the Sounders.
Seattle has two games in hand on RSL, but don’t be surprised if the Claret and Cobalt are the No. 1 seed in the West by the end of the season.
Cassar has had an impressive debut campaign with RSL, and the key has been creating a close-knit squad. No key players departed from the club in the winter, and that’s due in large part to general manager Garth Lagerwey, who’s arguably the best in MLS.
Real Salt Lake has made the playoffs every year since 2008, which is a fantastic record given that it is relative newcomers to MLS and play in a smaller market.
RSL is underrated every season mainly because the team isn’t the strongest on paper, yet it comfortably qualifies for the playoffs every year.
That will most likely happen again. The team is well organized and has great chemistry no matter who is on the pitch. Joao Plata, Salt Lake’s top scorer with 11 goals in 18 appearances, has been the main catalyst.
However, RSL have other consistent players to help carry the load. Javier Morales has six goals, as does Alvaro Saborio, who suffered a foot injury that will keep him out of action until at least September.
The midfield is also strong with Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Luis Gil and Luke Mulholland. The back line of Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran has been rock solid for most of the season, conceding just 28 goals.
Finally, there is keeper Nick Rimando, the all-time leader in clean sheets in MLS. The U.S. international is widely considered to be the best goalkeeper in the league. Rimando completes RSL’s very strong spine, which every successful team possesses.
Experience is also a factor in RSL’s winning formula. The squad was one penalty away from claiming its second MLS Cup last year, and it will be out for revenge this time around. Home-field advantage would certainly help its cause, as seven of RSL’s 11 wins have come at home. Only Seattle and FC Dallas have more with eight.
Real Salt Lake’s recent run of form has been impressive. It is undefeated in six straight games, but that has gone unnoticed amid Seattle’s spending spree over the last 12 months, the LA Galaxy’s resurgence and Sporting Kansas City’s equally strong season.
RSL is a team that can sit deep and counter or keep possession and expose opponents through its passing. The rotation system that Cassar uses still guarantees results, which is uncommon in MLS play.
Real Salt Lake should never be taken lightly, especially at this stage of the season. Watch out for them down the stretch and in the postseason, as the team will surely have a major impact on the final outcome of the 2014 campaign.