After a rough-and-tumble season that saw Real Salt Lake miss the playoffs for the first time in years, the team is looking to bounce back with a deeper, stronger squad.

Through the addition of two key figures to the team, Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel has made his first two big moves, and he’s committed himself to bringing in one more player.

While that seems minuscule compared to the whole-squad changes that teams with greater financial resources (and no salary cap) sometimes perform in a bid for reformation, it's huge for an MLS team whose primary identity has been based on stability and strong, veteran leadership.

After the Expansion Draft last year, when Chris Wingert and Ned Grabavoy left for New York City FC, and after the trade of Nat Borchers to Portland, Jeff Cassar’s RSL was left needing a boost. But the team ventured toward boosting depth through youth — and replacing three starters with young players, without other major improvements, was a gamble that didn’t play out favorably.

Waibel’s bid, then, toward improvement has come in the form of two players near the peak of their respective careers. The first: Yura Movsisyan, the Armenian striker who last played for Russian club Spartak Moscow but was best known for his time in Salt Lake City near the start of his professional career. The second: Stephen “Sunny” Sunday, a midfielder who got his start in the Spanish youth system of Valencia and has spent the majority of his career bouncing from team to team.

Waibel has been quite vocal about bringing in a third player this offseason to play at center back. In a recent interview with RSL-owned radio station ESPN 700, he confirmed that fact, adding that the team has had two handshake agreements with players fall through. But they’ve brought another option into their preseason camp: Jerry Akaminko, a Ghanaian center back who made news just before the 2014 World Cup when he fractured his ankle during a match against the Netherlands.

Akaminko spent a year on the sidelines, but he found it difficult to return to full standing with his team, Turkish side Eskişehirspor. While he did return and play in some matches, he was sometimes kept out — that was perhaps down to a downturn in form, but as usual with world soccer, the reasons a player is left out of a side can range from injuries to differences of opinion with a coach. For his part, he’s insisted he’s fully fit, and he’s posted evidence on Twitter of just that.

The impact the two definite signings, Movsisyan and Sunday, can have is yet to be fully realized or even envisioned beyond a cursory assumption. Their impact — and the potential impact of a center back signing — is best evaluated in relation to the rest of the roster, where we can also evaluate the more depth-oriented signings the club has made.


There are no changes at goalkeeper; RSL did draft Connor Sparrow, but he’s likely to earn his keep with Real Monarchs. Nick Rimando remains king here.


Without a new signing, the center back depth is woefully low. Jamison Olave and Aaron Maund serve as potential starters, but they serve more or less the same role. Both are more physically able center backs that perform best with an organizing center back — think Borchers at his prime with Real Salt Lake alongside Olave — which underlines RSL’s need to bring a player in. While Justen Glad could fill that role, he’s young, and with youth comes inconsistency.

Chris Wingert has been added, ensuring RSL is in a better position should they need to dip below the starters or higher-level backups. He’s capable of playing anywhere across the backline, and that makes him a valuable addition to the team. He’s still behind players like Tony Beltran and Demar Phillips in the depth chart, and he’s certainly behind most of the center back options at the club.


The addition of Sunday is a substantial one: He joins an established group of players, consisting of Kyle Beckerman, Luke Mulholland and Javier Morales. But he also primarily looks to be capturing minutes that Mulholland would naturally earn, given he plays in that same box-to-box role. On initial glance, Sunday brings a desire to win the ball in pushed-up positions in the midfield, as well as a certain tenacity and tackling ability. That may get him into trouble in MLS, so there’s a small question mark there. They’re all backed up by John Stertzer, newcomers Omar Holness and Danilo Acosta, and second-year youngster Fito Ovalle.

With the departures of Luis Gil, Luis Silva and Sebastian Saucedo, RSL’s attacking midfield depth has changed significantly. That could lead us to think that there’s going to be a departure in the way that Jeff Cassar deploys the attacking players — perhaps considering Morales as more of an attacking player than a midfielder in his system. But it also means that Jordan Allen is being considered for that position, which comes as a departure from his previously flank-exclusive roles.


The addition of Movsisyan to the squad brings a newfound goalmouth potency that’s been missing since Alvaro Saborio was at his best with Real Salt Lake between 2010 and 2012. Movsisyan has already set his target on double-digit goals, and it’s the sort of thing the team truly missed last year.

He joins a fairly deep squad: Burrito Martinez and Joao Plata are likely to flank him, if fit, and they’re backed up by Olmes Garcia, Emery Welshman, and Devon Sandoval. It gives the team some diversity in options, too — if they need a beefier center forward group, they could opt for playing Sandoval and Movsisyan off each other; but if they need more speed, Olmes Garcia can step in.

It’s clear that depth was a focus for Waibel, but instead of strengthening the middle, he opted to strengthen the top. It’s the sort of move that Real Salt Lake has avoided in the past, preferring instead to build from the middle and grow good players. It’s not a rejection of the “Team is the Star” mentality, but it certainly casts a different light on RSL heading into 2016.

Matt Montgomery is the managing editor of RSL Soapbox.

Twitter: TheCrossbarRSL