Instead of rebuilding, Real Salt Lake actually improved

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Despite losing three of their most important players, RSL has put together one of the best seasons in their history.

This was supposed to be the year Real Salt Lake finally went through a rebuild. They had traded away one of their midfield rocks (Will Johnson), one of their leading scorers (Fabian Espindola) and their most talented defender (Jamison Olave). Even more, they were going to be replaced by a group of players with limited MLS experience and were playing in what was widely expected to be an improved Western Conference.

A middle-of-the-pack finish would have been perfectly acceptable.

Instead they turned in what might be their best regular season they've ever had. The 56 points was just one point shy of the franchise record (57 in 2012) and their +18 goal difference was the second best in franchise history (+25 in 2010). But the 57 goals scored was by far the most in RSL's history and this is arguably the most complete roster they've ever constructed.

For all their efforts, though, they must face the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals. The first leg is on Sunday at the StubHub Center (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).

But rather than focus on the matchup, this team deserves some attention for what they've already accomplished, which is quite a lot.

Replacing Will Johnson

It's hardly a coincidence that RSL made the playoffs in each of Johnson's five seasons in Claret-and-Cobalt. Love or hate the defensive minded central midfielder, he was a hard-tackling steady influence during each of his four full seasons, playing at least 2000 minutes in each year.

The responsibility of replacing Johnson mostly fell to 20-year-old Luis Gil, but ended up being a bit of a committee that also featured Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez. Gil, who had filled in for Javier Morales at the point of the diamond a year earlier, was able to bring a level of creativity and scoring ability to the position that had previously been lacking. Gil's five goals were the same number that Johnson scored in the two previous years combined and his three assists equaled Johnson's best year at RSL.

Gil's presence also made it much harder for opposing defenses to focus on Morales and helped open up the game for left midfielder Ned Grabavoy. Both Morales and Grabavoy set career-highs in goals scored, combining for 13 between them. They also chipped in with 15 combined assists, also their highest total since they started playing in the same midfield in 2009. Kyle Beckerman, who was able to be even more of a straight defensive midfielder, added four goals and six assists.

The result was a dynamic midfield quite unlike anything else RSL has fielded, with those four combining for 21 goals and 24 assists.

Replacing Jamison Olave

The decision to trade Olave was probably considered the most controversial of the big offseason moves, mainly because there's no other defender quite like him in MLS. At 6'3 and possessing real speed, he's capable of matching up with virtually any forward in the league and physically dominating them. The thing is, he had grown increasingly fragile, playing a career low 1734 minutes in 2012.

No one player was ever going to replace Olave, but two relatively young ones ultimately filled the gap. Chris Schuler (16 starts) and Carlos Salcedo (12 starts) were mostly up the task alongside Nat Borchers. While the 41 goals allowed were the most their highest total during their six-year run of playoff appearances, it was easily offset by the dramatically improved offense.

More to the point, once Schuler took over full time for the 20-year-old Salcedo, the RSL defense has looked far more stout. In the final four games of the year, all Schuler starts, RSL allowed just two goals. In the four previous games with Salcedo, RSL had allowed six goals. In the 10 matches that Borchers and Schuler have started together, RSL has allowed just eight goals.

Replacing Fabian Espindola

Purely from a production standpoint, the biggest hole RSL needed to fill was the one left by Espindola. The Argentinian forward had scored 19 goals and contributed 10 assists over the past two seasons. As secondary scorers go, there weren't many better than Espindola. This ended up being exasperated by Alvaro Sabario only being able to make a career-low 15 starts.

The return of Robbie Findley was expected to fill much of the gap, but it was the emergence of Joao Plata, Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia that really ended up being the key.

That quartet ended up combining for 18 goals and 14 assists, which along with Saborio's 12 goals and three assists made them one of the most explosive forward units in the league. It also made them a far more tactically flexible unit than they had previously been.

While Findley brings a lot of the same skills as Espindola, the size and speed of Garcia and Sandoval was something almost entirely new. Plata was another beast altogether. One of the smallest players in the league at 5'2 and 135 pounds, his quickness and vision allowed a new kind of tactical approach that had been missing in previous iterations.

For all their success during the Jason Kreis era, RSL was also one of the most tactically predictable teams in the league. The diamond midfield was virtually their exclusive formation and players were usually just swapped out for one another.

This year, though, we saw RSL occasionally move into a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 to quite a good degree of success. RSL actually won all three games in which they started in that formation, outscoring their opponents 5-0.

Given all this, it's no wonder that Kreis' coaching stock has never been higher. Rumors are already rampant that New York City FC is trying to lure him to the Big Apple and there's some speculation that the Vancouver Whitecaps may try to entice him to a move north. Frankly, any team in MLS would probably love to have him.

If Kreis can lead RSL past the Galaxy and ultimately to the MLS Cup, his options may be even greater.

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