With Major League Soccer as competitive as ever, Keave Tollington asks whether Real Salt Lake will struggle to maintain their consistency in a tough looking Western Conference in 2015.
The Western Conference has arguably never looked tougher as we head into the 2015 MLS season. Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo have been moved in from the Eastern Conference to make room for expansion clubs Orlando City and New York City and that is bound to have an effect on teams who already struggle in the fiercely competitive Western Conference.
Real Salt Lake, who received a thrashing from eventual MLS Cup Champions LA Galaxy to end their season in the MLS Playoffs last year, are one of the teams that will face the brunt of the blood bath that will be the 2015 Western Conference. Whilst RSL are still widely considered one of the best teams in Major League Soccer, it has now been six years since they won MLS Cup.
Real Salt Lake have seen several changes to their squad this offseason, with perhaps the biggest losses conceded when midfielder Ned Grabavoy and defender Chris Wingert were picked by New York City in the 2014 MLS Expansion Draft. They were both left unprotected and for Wingert the move sees him return to his home state. Both have been key assets to RSL since they joined in 2007 (Wingert) and 2009 (Grabavoy) and will surely be missed by everyone in Salt Lake.
Perhaps the most exciting signing for RSL fans so far this offseason is Jamison Olave, who is returning to Real Salt Lake after having left in 2012 to play with the New York Red Bulls.
Olave is somewhat a club legend, making 120 appearances for RSL from 2008-2012. In the 2010 season he anchored a backline that let in just 20 goals in 30 matches. He is widely regarded as one of the best centre-backs in MLS and is known for his combination of speed, strength and size.
Salt Lake fans will be hoping that the return of Olave will vastly improve their chances of winning the 2015 MLS Cup as he was a very prominent figure in the 2009 season when RSL took home the championship. As well as winning the MLS Cup, Olave was part of the squad that advanced to the 2010/11 CONCACAF Champions League Final.
In 2008 the Colombian scored the first goal in Rio Tinto Stadium history and also scored the critical away goal against Saprissa in the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League that allowed them to progress.
With Chris Schuler, Tony Beltran and Olave making up a heavy backline, Real Salt Lake’s defence is going to be intimidating to even the strongest MLS teams this season. However, the changing face of the Western Conference will definitely make it difficult to continue the club’s string of five consecutive seasons with at least 15 wins and 50 points and seven straight playoffs appearances.
Real Salt Lake meet Portland Timbers at Providence Park in their season opener on March 7th. Their first home game is against Philadelphia Union on March 13.