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2017 Western Conference Preview: Real Salt Lake

We’re here for RSL. Not that we really want to be, but hey, the previews must roll on.

Portland Timbers v Real Salt Lake - Western Conference Championship - Leg 1 Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Real Salt Lake was worse than the Colorado Rapids in 2016, and that was of great significance to us Rapids fans. I personally keep an eye on the relative standings between the two teams until the day when Colorado is assured of finishing higher than RSL, the same way St. Totteringham’s day is celebrated by Arsenal fans.

But that’s my thing. For the bulk of Rapids fandom, we are focused primarily on the Rocky Mountain Cup, and sadly, that didn’t swing our way in 2016, as Real took two of three matches against us.

In 2017, the Rapids host RSL twice, so the advantage swings our way for reclaiming the Rocky Mountain Cup. RSL has a few upgrades coming in, and a few holes to fill. They will be an interesting club to watch in 2017; and of all the clubs in MLS, they might be one of the hardest to predict. I’ll try anyhow.

2016 Record: 12-10-12 (WTL), 46 points, 6th in Western Conference, Lost to LA Galaxy in MLS Playoff first round.

2016 Goals For: 44, 13th in MLS

2016 Goals Against: 46, 10th in MLS

Key Stat:

RSL’s 2016 Team Expected Goals against (xGA): 51.66, (16th in MLS)

RSL 2017 xGA - GA: +5.66, (4th in MLS)

*Stats care of americansocceranalysis.com

Key Additions:

Albert Rusnak, Brooks Lennon, David Horst

Key Subtractions:

Javier Morales, Juan Manuel Martinez, Jamison Olave

What they have going for them:

Yura Movsisyan returned from the relative purgatory of the Russian Premier League for his second stint in MLS, and was mostly successful. Yura had 9 goals through 29 games, but it felt like he was capable of more. If he settles in and improves a touch in 2017, it will really prove dangerous for all of RSL’s Western Conference foes. RSL got 12 assists from the dribbly, dangerous, spritely Ecuadorean forward known as Joao Plata; that kind of production for any winger in setting the table for a team is invaluable.

To those two attackers, RSL is adding highly touted forward Albert Rusnak. Rusnak joins the club from FC Groningen in the Dutch Eredivisie. That’s two consecutive BWave previews mentioning an MLS signing from Groningen. Drink.

Rusnak looks pretty darn good. You’ll need to click the link to run the video (darn complicated intertubes) but it’s worth it.

Some folks project him to step in and play as the number ten, which leads to some really good questions about RSL’s best formation. Does Plata pair with Movsisyan up top in a diamond 4-4-2, with Beckerman lying behind Rusnak? Or does Plata lie behind Movsisyan in a 4-4-1-1, maybe with Rusnak and Beckerman trying to go box to box? Or does RSL stay with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, and maybe Sebastian Saucedo plays on the right wing? Matt Doyle thinks so. Whatever it is, Yura, Joao and Rusnak form a potentially potent triad in attack.

If that’s not enough, the team has speedy winger Jordan Allen, who will be valuable as soon as he can get some minutes, and they just signed a loan deal with Liverpool to get Brooks Lennon. It might be that Lennon plays that right wing spot instead of Saucedo, or takes left wing while Plata slides back to play in midfield next to Rusnak, or comes off the bench. These are pretty nice problems to have to solve.

A Rapids fan like me would want to write something damning and critical in a preview of RSL; something to the effect of ‘Beckerman and Rimando are old and they’re gonna fall apart and RSL is gonna be terrible.’ Except, there’s like no evidence of that at all. The dirty hippy at d-mid may not have the same mobility as he did back in 2014 when he was one of the USMNT’s lynchpin players, but he’s still a damn good defensive midfielder - good enough that RSL still employ him as the lone shield for the backline. And Nick Rimando is possibly the best USMNT keeper right now, if you consider that Brad Guzan has been gathering dust on the bench for Middlesborough and Tim Howard is still injured.

Moreover, last year I thought they were crazy thin in defense, and their CBs were especially suspect, with two young, untested defenders in Aaron Maund and Justen Glad. The pair turned out fine, and despite my prognostications of doom and disaster, RSL were league-average in goals against. That’s also due to the steady work of their outside backs, Demar Phillips and Tony Beltran, both of whom are as reliable as a Friday afternoon traffic jam up I-70 before a three-day weekend. As much as I want to say ‘they’re weak in defense’, they are not. Bummer.

Whats troubling:

RSL had one of the most exciting players in MLS in 2016 in Juan Manuel Martinez. And now they don’t. Now that he no longer plays for our arch-rivals, peek this highlight reel of ‘Burrito’, and enjoy without even a scintilla of guilt.

Burrito went home to Argentina because he was homesick, and that’s a shame for all us MLS fans that love dribbly-goodness. RSL also non-tendered their long-time midfield maestro, Javier Morales. The ageless-wonder had been pulling the strings in the midfield for the club since his first year in MLS back in 2007. Javi Mo’s production declined to just 4 goals, 4 assists in 2016; the least since 2011, and he’ll be filling in for Mauro Diaz at FC Dallas this year.

That’s a lot of attacking talent to replace in one bite. If Rusnak can have a Giovinco/Lodeiro level of impact, RSL become a top-3 team in the Western Conference. If he sputters out of the gate or turns out to be more like a Rafa Marquez style DP signing, well, the midfield suddenly looks pretty calamitous. Other MLS teams I can recall of late that had good attackers, good defenders, and a lousy midfield include San Jose and Chicago. Yikes.

Lastly, that key stat tells a big story, as the xGA tells us that statistically, based on how many and where the shots RSL faced were taken, RSL should have yielded around 52 goals last year, but only surrendered 46. Only Houston, Colorado, and the LA Galaxy had a larger margin between goals conceded and expected goals conceded. That *likely* means RSL were great in defense, but it also could mean that they were lucky: opposing teams were just a little more off the mark with RSL, or Nick Rimando was a little bit better than the maths imagined. So it may tell us that RSL has an excellent defensive line that pressures strikers into errant shots. Or that Rimando, along with Brian Rowe, Tim Howard, and Tyler Deric, parry shots that other keepers let in.

But the alternative could also be true: RSL opponents were just unlucky in front of the net, and that this year, there will be some regression to the mean. In other words, flukes are flukes, and RSL’s defense is actually worse than we think but dodged a lot of bullets in 2016. I made that bet last year and I was wrong. I make no such guess this year.

2017 Forecast

RSL looks good to me in 2017, much as I hate to admit it. They had deficiencies to address in the offseason, and they addressed them. I pick them to finish 3rd or 4th in the Western Conference, and to make it until at least the second round of the MLS playoffs. But I predict the Rapids win at least two out of three against the claret and cobalt, to bring home the Rocky Mountain Cup to its rightful home with Centennial 38.

Our fearless Burgundy Wave leader, Abbie Mood, continues in a few days with a preview of the Portland Timbers. I’m hoping for a hawt photo of Timber Joey, personally.