In what was somewhat expected to be a make-or-break year for Real Salt Lake, the team looked for a while like it was about to make it, but finished the year nearly broken. It spent the season in the playoff places in the Western Conference, but went as high as second at the end of August.
But September and October were not kind to RSL and the side faded badly down the stretch, not winning a game in either month. The team had done enough early on to make playoffs, but just barely, backing into the last playoff spot in the conference.
Combined with a one-and-done playoff appearance — a 3-1 loss to the Galaxy — questions immediately arose about the future of key members of the team and coaching staff. Head coach Jeff Cassar was retained, but longtime playmaker Javier Morales was not.
It certainly looks as if RSL is making a commitment towards youth, bringing Slovakian playmaker Albert Rusnak to be the midfield’s new engine. The team’s success will depend on those young players combining with veterans Kyle Beckerman, Yura Movsisyan and Nick Rimando to return the team back to the heights it saw a half-decade ago.
How did Real Salt Lake perform in 2016?
2016 finish: Sixth in the Western Conference (12-10-11), eliminated in knockout round
RSL beat its rivals, the Colorado Rapids, to move to second in the conference Aug. 26. The club did not win another game in 2016. After barely making the postseason, RSL was finished off by an Emmanuel Boateng brace as the LA Galaxy triumphed 3-1 in the knockout round.
Real Salt Lake's key offseason losses
The big name to depart is Morales, who has been the team’s playmaker for a decade. At 37, it’s understandable why the team felt the need to move on, but replacing Morales will not be easy. Despite showing signs of age, he remained a strong playmaker for the side in 2016.
RSL also let go Jamison Olave and Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez, both of whom were starters at points last season, though Olave had fallen to second choice between Justen Glad and Aaron Maund. Martinez and the club agreed to a mutual contract termination.
Backup keeper Jeff Attinella was lost in the expansion draft while Boyd Okwuonu, Phanuel Kavita, John Stertzer, Emery Welshman, Olmes Garcia, Pedro Baez and Devon Sandoval were not tendered new contracts.
Real Salt Lake's key offseason additions
The big move was paying a $450,000 transfer fee to FC Groningen for Albert Rusnak. The 22-year-old will step into Morales’ playmaker role on a designated player contract.
RSL also brought in Brooks Lennon from Liverpool on loan for the season, while Sebastian Saucedo returns from his own loan at Veracruz. It added Jose Hernandez on a homegrown player deal.
Veterans Chad Barrett, David Horst, Luis Silva and Matt Van Oekel also join the mix, likely as reserves.
How will Real Salt Lake line up in 2017?
Jeff Cassar’s preferred formation has been the 4-3-3, though last year also saw the 4-2-3-1 mixed in. Both will probably appear again this season, especially since the team will likely deploy two defensive-minded midfielders alongside a clearly designated playmaker.
Justen Glad is away with the U.S. under-20 team, but he’s likely to start at CB when he returns. He paired well with Aaron Maund last year, so that duo should be expected until proven otherwise. Veterans Demar Phillips and Tony Beltran should start at the fullback spots.
Beckerman will take up his role as holding midfielder, with Sunday Stephen likely paired with him. That will leave Rusnak freedom to get forward. The playmaker will operate centrally, but likely be given the freedom to float to wherever he’s needed to combine in the attack.
Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata are going to start so the other question is who fills in that third attacking spot. Brooks Lennon is a candidate, but his absence for the U.S. Under-20s, combined with the fact he’s not had a lot of time with the team after joining from Liverpool, makes it more likely the role falls to Jordan Allen or someone else.
It’s worth noting RSL has a lot of young players 22 or younger: Rusnak, Allen, Lennon, Glad, Saucedo, Hernandez, Omar Holness and Danilo Acosta. Not all of them will start, but Cassar says all will have opportunities to play at some point this season. And if they make the most of them — they can make that position theirs.
Full Real Salt Lake roster entering the 2017 season
Goalkeepers: Lalo Fernandez, Nick Rimando, Matt Van Oekel
Defenders: Tony Beltran, Justen Glad, David Horst, Aaron Maund, Demar Phillips, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert
Midfielders: Danilo Acosta, Jordan Allen, Kyle Beckerman, Jose Hernandez, Sunday Stephen, Albert Rusnak, Sebastian Saucedo, Luis Silva
Forwards: Chad Barrett, Omar Holness, Brooks Lennon, Yura Movsisyan, Joao Plata
Real Salt Lake's national TV schedule
Real Salt Lake vs. Toronto FC - Saturday, March 4, at 4:30 p.m. ET on TSN
New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake - Saturday, March 25, at 4 p.m. ET on UniMas
Real Salt Lake vs. Vancouver Whitecaps - Saturday, April 8, at 9:30 p.m. ET on TSN
Real Salt Lake vs. Orlando City SC - Friday, June 30, at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Real Salt Lake - Saturday, Sept. 9, at 10 p.m. ET on TSN