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6 things to expect from Real Salt Lake

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In the 11 days between the county mayor's "no" vote and the governor's "yes" vote, there were varying emotions among Real Salt Lake's players and coaches.

While teen phenom Freddy Adu admitted he had no clue what was going on, RSL coach John Ellinger had to console one of his tearful daughters who'd become distraught about the prospects of moving away from her many friends.

As Jeff Cunningham was busy saying the stadium saga wasn't much of a distraction because "I'm a footballer, not a politician," Real captain Jason Kreis could sense the retirement curtain closing in because he said he'd rather retire than relocate his wife and two young boys to another MLS city.

No matter the burden, big or small, it vanished almost instantly last Thursday when the Utah State Legislature passed a bill to help fund the Sandy stadium.

Now, instead of being political interpreters for family and friends, the players and coaches can go back to focusing on what they do best — playing soccer.

With its April 7 opening day still a long way off, Real Salt Lake left for Orlando on Sunday for the next leg of its eight-week training camp. Here's a look at some intriguing stories to focus on in the coming weeks.

1. The Freddy factor

Freddy Adu's offseason acquisition was met with criticism and excitement, but both sides agreed that if the 17-year-old Adu was genuinely happy about his reunion with Ellinger, 2007 could be a breakthrough year for RSL and Adu.

So, when will Ellinger know if Freddy's happiness translates into his performance on the field?

"I think we'll know soon, by the start of the season for sure," said Ellinger. "That's just the type of player he is."

The first glimpses could come this Tuesday in a pair of exhibition games at the University of Central Florida. Or it could be this weekend, with games on tap against Chicago and New York at Disney's Wide World of Sports soccer complex.

One week into training camp, you can already see Adu's positive impact on the team, both tactically and emotionally. Chris Klein recently commented how the teenager's youthful exuberance was transferring over to his teammates.

Technically, Ellinger has already noticed the quality of the combination play between Adu and his new teammates, not to mention his work ethic.

"He has a lot to prove, and I think the players here appreciate the fact that he wants to be in the playoffs," said Ellinger. "All these guys want to do is win and get in the playoffs, and Freddy wants the same thing. I think everyone appreciates that we're all on the same page."

So as Freddymania follows Real Salt Lake throughout its varying stops this preseason, Ellinger simply can't imagine a scenario in which it becomes a distraction. He says there are simply too many good senior players on the team to let it happen.

2. The 3-5-2

Even though he was already toying with the idea, the final game of the regular season last year convinced Ellinger that a 3-5-2 formation was the way to go in 2007.

After Chivas USA ran circles around RSL in the first half of that season finale, Ellinger abandoned the 4-4-2 in favor of the 3-5-2 and Real did an immediate about-face and dominated the remainder of the game.

"I know we play well in a 3-5-2, because we're a good possession team, and we have the numbers," said Ellinger in reference to the quality depth in the midfield this year. "We have the personnel; we can do it. We're going to give it a shot and see how it goes."

With players like Carey Talley and Kreis sharing midfield duties, Adu playing the attacking mid role, and Chris Klein and Mehdi Ballouchy running up and down the flanks, Ellinger has absolute confidence in the attacking prowess of his team in a 3-5-2. It's the defense he's more concerned about.

He doesn't doubt his players' abilities; it's simply discovering who works well together.

Eddie Pope is the logical choice in the middle, but whom does Ellinger play wide left and wide right? The depth chart would seemingly have Daniel Torres starting at left back and Jack Stewart out right, with Willis Forko and Kevin Novak backing them up, respectively.

Realistically, Ellinger has no idea how it will all transpire.

"I'll start out with some people, and if that doesn't work out I'll try other people," said Ellinger. "We'll go back and forth to see what makes us work."

His first opportunity to toy around with lineups is Tuesday.

3. What about Ballouchy?

When Real traded for Adu, many fans instantly wondered what that meant for Ballouchy, who blossomed at attacking midfield during the latter half of the season in 2006.

By switching to a 3-5-2 formation, there's no doubt in Ellinger's mind where Ballouchy will play in 2007.

Ellinger knows everyone believes Ballouchy's got to be in the middle of the pitch, but there's more to it than that. In a 3-5-2, the wide midfielders must be the fittest guys on the team, because not only must they push up to support the attack, but they must track back defensively as well, serving as the fourth defender at times.

There's no disputing who Real Salt Lake's two fittest guys are — Klein and Ballouchy. As a result, it seems obvious to Ellinger to start Klein wide right and Ballouchy wide left.

Some wonder if Ballouchy is committed to doing the defensive work associated with that wide midfield position, something Ellinger will find out right away this preseason.

4. Waiting in the wings

Scott Garlick is definitely Real's No. 1 keeper heading into the 2007 season, but Ellinger says it's up to him how long he wants to keep it.

The club selected all-American keeper Chris Seitz with the fourth overall pick in the January SuperDraft, and there's no doubt he's going to be an all-star keeper for years to come. However, even though Seitz is the likely first choice keeper for both the Under-23 and Under-20 U.S. National Team right now, Ellinger believes he still has a lot to learn.

"He's very mature, athletic and has all the technical and tactical things you need as a goalkeeper, but you still need to learn the day-in, day-out grind of being professional," said Ellinger. "You're here every day now. This is your job. This is for real."

In many ways, assuming everyone stays healthy, Ellinger thinks he has the ideal goalkeeping scenario this year.

Because Seitz will likely be heading off to various national team camps throughout the season, even if Garlick holds down RSL's No. 1 job all year, Seitz will still see some quality minutes with the U.S. while continuing to improve professionally as Garlick's understudy.

5. Lethal strike force

Lost in the hubbub of the Adu trade was the fact that the following day RSL announced the signing of 24-year-old Panamanian forward Luis Tejada.

He's the type of target forward RSL was hoping Atiba Harris would evolve into last year but never did, and he's the perfect complement for Cunningham — MLS's leading scorer last year.

Tejada is currently with the Panama National Team participating in CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifying and won't join his new club team until RSL heads to Madrid, Spain, on Feb. 26. From that point on, Tejada and Cunningham will have six weeks to fine-tune what Ellinger believes could be the most potent scoring duo in MLS.

6. Feeling the heat

Ironically enough, after missing the playoffs the first two years, you'd think Ellinger would be feeling the heat entering his third year with RSL. Well, he's not.

"I know it's there, but I don't feel it," said Ellinger, who says it's pointless to worry about job security in MLS. "I've seen Sigi Schmid get fired, and he was in first place. So what's the hot seat anyway?"

With four of its first five games at home and the core of last year's team returning, Ellinger doesn't see any reason to fret.

"I just think we have a very good team, and I think we can win a lot of games, and I think the playoffs in my mind will take care of itself," he said.

The team's owner supports Ellinger completely, so those fans who like to drum up the "Fire Ellinger" chants periodically might just be blowing hot air for years to come.

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com