On a day that say players moving at a dizzying pace, it was Real Salt Lake who most altered their franchise. By trading away Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave and Will Johnson, they jettisoned three of the players who are most responsible for their run of success from 2009-present. They also made some far less world-rocking decisions by trading the seldom-used Justin Braun and declining the options on players like Paulo Jr. and Jonny Steele.
To a degree, there was some expectation that this would happen. Even before the playoffs started, there had been rumblings that this was the last hurrah for this group of players. The reason was pretty simple: the salary-cap caught up to RSL in a big way.
Prior to these moves, RSL was going to have to cut about 25 percent of their payroll. In conjunction, these moves did that and then some.
The trades of Olave and Espindola to the New York Red Bulls and Johnson to the Portland Timbers freed up about $1 million in salary cap room. I've also been told that it netted RSL somewhere between $600,000-$700,000 in allocation dollars. That's a ton of added flexibility.
As painful as these moves probably were, there's a very good chance that RSL could come out better in 2013 than they were this year.
The biggest loss, to me, is Espindola. After four mostly forgettable years, the 27-year-old broke out in 2011 with 10 goals. He followed that up with a nine-goal, seven-assist season in 2012. There's every reason to expect him to continue that run of form, if not improve, especially now that he's going to be playing alongside Thierry Henry.
The loss of Olave probably looks worse than it really is. For all his physical attributes, the 31-year-old has seen his minutes decline in each of the past two seasons. That's mostly the cause of injury. There are also rumblings that his training habits have fallen off a bit in recent years. He's also due to make close to $300,000 next year, which puts him among the most expensive center backs in the league.
That leaves Johnson, who I was never particularly impressed with but who was a fan favorite. At 25 years old, his best soccer may still be ahead of him. He's also versatile enough that he can be slotted in at any of the midfield spots. I can see what people like about him, but with nine goals and eight assists in his five seasons with RSL, I think he's just too expensive. He'll be making about $250,000 next year.
How RSL replaces these players will obviously determine how smart of a move this was. All indications are that the plan is to find Espindola's replacement outside of MLS. RSL coach Jason Kreis was apparently just on a trip to South America to scout some players. Espindola was RSL's second-leading scorer last year and chances are his replacement is not currently riding the team's bench.
Olave's replacement, however, probably is. Chris Schuler is the most likely replacement. At 25, he's already got 26 starts under his belt despite playing on a team that has had two of the best centerbacks in the league. He's also making closer to the league minimum, which is a value buy if I've ever seen one.
Similarly, Johnson's most likely replacement is Luis Gil. The 19-year-old has earned 25 starts over the past two seasons and is probably one of the brightest young stars in the league. It's not remotely difficult to see him breaking out in 2013.
There is one wild card in this equation, though: Javier Morales. The classic No. 10 is currently out of contract, but it sounds unlikely that RSL is itching for him to lose that DP classification. Negotiations are reportedly going well, but the possibility that Morales could look for greener pastures is not out of the question.
That can be viewed one of two ways. Either it's a serious blow or another opportunity. There are definitely questions about whether or not Morales has entirely come back from the injury that sidelined him in 2011 and it's not impossible to imagine RSL taking the cap savings and finding a very productive replacement. At his best, though, there are few players who can match Morales' upside. His nine assists in 2012 were the same number he had in 2010, when he was being prominently mentioned as a MVP candidate.
There's no denying that this has already been a rough offseason for RSL fans. The good news is that Kreis and co. clearly have a plan.