2012 Real Salt Lake Preview: Reserves Will Likely Play Big Role, Again

SANDY, UT - MAY 7:Will Johnson #8 of Real Salt Lake celebrates the game winning goal against Chivas USA during the second half of an MLS soccer game May 7, 2011 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Real Salt Lake beat Chivas USA 1-0. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

Several key players are hurt or coming back from injuries, meaning Real Salt Lake's depth will be tested once again, writes RSL Soapbox's Denzel Eslinger.

Real Salt Lake

2011 record (finish): 15-11-8

Key additions: Enzo Martinez, Sebastian Velasquez, Jonny Steele, Terukazu Tanaka

Key losses: Andy Williams, Robbie Russell, Collen Warner, Arturo Alvarez

Full-strength Starting XI: Nick Rimando, Chris Wingert, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Tony Beltran, Ned Grabavoy, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola, Alvar Saborio

Bold prediction: Sebastian Velasquez not only wins a starting position as a rookie but wins the MLS rookie of the year award, not bad for a guy MLS didn't know existed until RSL drafted him.

Biggest fear: Injury issues that doomed RSL's 2011 season again cause huge issues for the team in 2012.

2011 was a year of huge expectations and mediocre delivery by RSL. While making it to the CONCACAF Champions League final and playing in a third Conference final in four years may be good enough for some teams and some fans, they don't fly in Salt Lake City. So 2012 becomes a year that for the first time sees major changes at RSL. Nine players are no longer with the team and eight new players will take their place. With injuries it will be names that are unknown to fans that will have to step up and lead the way for RSL. A lot of people will remember Paulo Jr, but not so many know who Cody Arnoux is. Chris Schuler is about to become a household name for RSL fans, as is Sebastian Velasquez. Ned Grabavoy goes from a role player to a role model due to the changes and national team call-ups that will hit RSL all season long.

So while the RSL core is still in place, they are getting older and that has resulted in more injuries and longer recovery periods. Huge question marks revolve around Javier Morales' health, the ability for Alvaro Sabario's ability to get back to 100 percent after playing a year hurt and Will Johnson's ability to just get back on the field. While the team will continue to rely on the veterans, it is the new faces that will be turning heads this year as they fight for minutes. Besides who doesn't want to see Jonny Steele get his shot at MLS and who hasn't been interested to see how Terukazu Tanaka does and what hairdo we might see next from him?

Injuries and suspensions down the stretch led to RSL giving up 13 goals in their final six matches after giving up just 23 in their first 28 matches of the year. Can the team regain their defensive dominance? Jamison Olave is as healthy as he has been at the start of the season, Tony Beltran is ready to go, but Saturday night Chris Wingert took a boot to the face and it resulted in stitches followed up by surgery to repair the cut, and Nat Borchers is still on the shelf. While the start of 2011 saw RSL give up just two goals in their first eight matches, if they are going to come anywhere close to that it will be on the shoulders of guys like Schuler, Tanaka and Leone Cruz. We have seen Nick Rimando do amazing things in goal, and he might have to be every bit as amazing this year.

The one early upside for RSL is that four of their first six matches will be at home, a place where RSL has lost just three matches over the last two seasons. Only the LA Galaxy with four loses at home over the last two seasons come close to having as big of a home-field advantage as RSL does. With the new schedule RSL is going to be forced to get every possible point at home this year if they want to be playing host when 12-1-12 comes around.

- Denzel Eslinger, RSL Soapbox

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