Few teams have more to prove in the 2016 MLS season than Real Salt Lake.
Last season was a dud — there’s no way to sugarcoat that fact. It missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years and finished as one of the worst offensive and defensive teams in MLS.
The technical staff made a couple of noteworthy offseason acquisitions to address the weaknesses, even though some remain — particularly on the backline.
In the stacked Western Conference, regardless of the improvements, the 2016 season figures to be a grind as RSL looks to fight its way back into the playoff picture. If RSL’s performance in a pair CONCACAF Champions League games the past two weeks is any indicator, though, this year’s team should be vastly improved.
Even though RSL failed to advance out of the CCL quarterfinals, it turned some heads with its performance and arguably had the best showing of any its MLS counterparts.
That was the silver lining.
“It's painful. It's painful no matter what. I'm a pretty positive guy. I couldn't be more happy and more excited about what's ahead for this team,” said RSL coach Jeff Cassar following Wednesday’s draw with Tigres at Rio Tinto Stadium. “If we have that kind of effort from everyone. We've talked about sacrificing for each other, and that's what I saw tonight was players sacrificing for each other. If we continue to do things like that we're going to have a successful year. It definitely hurts but we have to put it behind us.”
It will try and do that this weekend when Real Salt Lake opens the 2016 regular season at Orlando City (Noon, KMYU).
Like his coach, Nick Rimando’s hopes for 2016 were buoyed by the performance against Tigres.
“I'm excited about this year. I mean, a lot of ups in this game, in this series. Going to Mexico, a pretty hard place to play, and sticking with one of the best teams arguably in Mexico,” said Rimando after Wednesday's draw. “Obviously we had some chances tonight, but we also missed some chances the first leg, so we can't just hold our heads about one chance here tonight. A lot of pride went into tonight's game and effort. If we play like this I think the season is going to be bright for us."
Like RSL, Orlando missed the 2015 playoffs in its expansion season and expects to make a bigger impact in the league this year.
A big reason for RSL’s improved outlook is the acquisition of Yura Movsisyan.
A year ago midfielder Javier Morales led RSL in scoring with just eight goals, but expectations are that Movsisyan will easily reach double-digit goals in 2016. A full season with Juan Manuel Martinez on the roster should pay big dividends as well.
Their combined potential was on display in both legs against Tigres, and it was impressive. The way Movsisyan and Martinez linked up with Morales and Joao Plata in RSL’s attack gives the team plenty to be excited about in 2016.
“I think as these guys get even fitter and more comfortable we’re going to be able to attack like that and press like that. We can’t do that all the time with our busy schedule, but if guys get fitter we’re going to be able to do more things and guys are going to be sharper and be able to pull off more things,” said Cuff.
In the only meeting between RSL and Orlando last season, the teams played to a 1-1 draw in a match that many will recall for Kaka’s second-half red card.
After such a physical grind on Wednesday against Tigres, Cassar will likely make several changes to the lineup against Orlando as the club looks to open the 2016 season with a positive result.
Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: email@example.com