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Amid disappointment, Real Salt Lake veterans looking ahead to 2017

In the latter half of the 2016 season, Tony Beltran started going back and rewatching some of Real Salt Lake’s games from earlier in the season. There was an unmistakable trend.

“Our ball movement was considerably better earlier in the year than in the latter half of the year. I’m not sure why that is,” said Beltran.

That eye test was reflective with how the 2016 season actually unfolded.

In the first 11 games of the season, RSL collected 20 points with a 6-3-2 record and 17 goals. In the middle 11 games it went 3-3-5 (14 points) with 14 goals scored and in the last 15 games it finished with a 3-6-3 record (12 points) and only 12 goals scored.

The last seven games of the 2016 season are what this team will be remembered for.

When Real Salt Lake beat Dallas and Colorado in back-to-back home games in late August, it was right in the thick of the Supporters’ Shield race, tied for second in the West.

It didn’t win again.

The club posted a 0-4-3 record over its last seven regular season games with just five goals scored. It still qualified for the MLS playoffs as the sixth seed, but last week was emphatically dispatched by the L.A. Galaxy 3-1 in the Knockout Round.

“For whatever reason, this is almost starting to become a trend for RSL, where the last third of a year we hit a little bit of a lull, and it was really exemplified this season the last eight games,” said Beltran. “It’s something we need to identify and obviously fix because it kept us out of a prime playoff position.”

A better finish in those last seven games — even just one victory — and Real Salt Lake would’ve avoided the Knockout Round and would be preparing for Leg 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Instead, the players had their exit physicals at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday and they now head into the offseason knowing the potential was there for so much more.

“It was disappointing because I felt like we had a team to move on and to create some noise in the playoffs,” said Nick Rimando.

Questions will linger about whether RSL’s fade down the stretch was the result of too much reliance on its older core of players, which includes seven players over age 30.

Going forward, though, Rimando believes that same core of players has more in the tank.

“I believe in myself, and that’s the only person I can talk about. Coaches have their opinions, but when I look in these guys' eyes, if you’re talking about just the veterans, I can see they still have fight in them, they still have the ability to play at this level,” said Rimando.

Captain Kyle Beckerman was obviously disappointed with the last stretch of the season, but he reflected on the season positively Wednesday.

“When I look back on the year I think there was a lot of positives. There’s always going to be disappointments at the end of the season, but going forward the club is in healthy shape,” said Beckerman.

The 2015 season was RSL’s first using the 4-3-3 formation, and it finished ninth in the West with 41 points, 38 goals scored and 48 goals conceded.

Buoyed by the signing of Yura Movsisyan this offseason, and a full season from Juan Manuel Martinez, RSL made modest gains in 2016 finishing sixth with 46 points, 44 goals scored and 46 goals allowed.

“There’s a healthy foundation of players on the team, the staff is going to be out looking for players that can bring an immediate impact for the team. I don’t see it being a complete overhaul. There will be some turnover, but I think it’s going to be little pieces than more than a huge overhaul,” said Beckerman.

The big question of the next month or so is at head coach. Jeff Cassar’s contract expires after this season, and owner Dell Loy Hansen must decide whether to resign Cassar or explore other options.

Beltran and Rimando expressed support for Cassar on Wednesday and would like to see him back.

“I’ve been able to see Jeff’s evolution over the last three years and he’s really made some great strides in his coaching ability,” said Beltran. “I hope he gets the opportunity to continue to grow.”

Said Rimando, “I enjoy playing for Jeff, and if he’s the coach I’m going to be happy and working my butt off again.”

Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: