Real Salt Lake 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season

Eduardo Mendez@@Mendez_FCCorrespondent IIMarch 6, 2014

Real Salt Lake 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Growing beyond the Jason Kreis era will be Real Salt Lake's story to watch in 2014, but what additional storylines will complete the team's season preview?

    In part 18 of our 19-part series, we will take an in-depth look at the most intriguing plots surrounding the Claret and Cobalt this season. The number and player to watch, as well as the match that should immediately be circled on your calendar, will be delved into with great detail.

    Read on for your comprehensive guide to 2014.

    Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to Squawka. All data collected is licensed from Opta Sports.

Offseason Transactions

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    Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

    Before we preview the coming year, here is MLS's complete list of offseason acquisitions and departures that helped mold this season's version of the club.

    Players In:

    M/FJordan AllenHomegrown
    MLuke MulhollandFree Transfer

    Players Out:

    MYordany AlvarezOut of Contract
    DBrandon McDonaldOut of Contract
    GKJosh SaundersOut of Contract
    MKhari StephensonOut of Contract
    D/MLovel PalmerTrade to Chicago

The Story to Watch: Growing Beyond the Jason Kreis Era

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    Jason Kreis spent seven seasons as head coach of the Claret and Cobalt, leading the club to its only MLS Cup title in 2009.

    It was the title of "runner up," however, that plagued his coaching tenure.

    In 2010, it was three points that kept RSL from capturing the Supporters' Shield title. The Los Angeles Galaxy's total of 59 would eventually best his club's effort (56).

    In 2011, Coach Kreis led his men on the deepest CONCACAF Champions League run in MLS history, but they faltered on their own turf against Mexican outfit Monterrey in the return leg of the final round. 

    Last season was no different. Coach Kreis remained the bridesmaid and never the bride.

    Before a home crowd, RSL shockingly fell to D.C. United in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup final. The same United side that finished with the worst record in MLS history caused an all-too-familiar feeling to permeate Rio Tinto Stadium.  

    Kreis and his men would suffer the same fate in their final match as a unit. Sporting Kansas City captured the 2013 MLS Cup title thanks to the dreaded penalty kicks.

    But rather than finish climbing a mountain he failed to climb on four separate occasions, the now former head coach decided take his talents to the Big Apple. He was formerly introduced as the first head coach of New York City FC—MLS's 20th franchise—on Jan. 10, 2014.

    His first public comments after making the decision were directed toward Bill Riley of ESPN 700 and explained the ultimate motivation behind his departure (h/t to Nick Firchau of the official MLS website):

    We have some angst about that, honestly, through my playing career, and looking back and saying, "What if? What if I had taken the chance to go on some trials in Europe? What if I had not made the safe choice?" As this opportunity became available through the summer…I think we both thought that it was kind of eerie, that we were being faced with this opportunity, and we've always looked back at [his career] and said, "What if we had made a decision the other way?"As we thought about that, we both came to the feeling that now's our time to go after that thing we didn't do. For all those days in our playing career, now's our time to really see if there's another big mountain to climb. And so in the end, that's the decision we made, and that's why we made it.

    RSL would appoint one of their own as the third head coach in club history. Jeff Cassar was introduced to the media in December of 2013 after spending the last seven seasons as the Claret and Cobalt's goalkeeper coach.

    Should there be any reservations about his coaching capabilities, look no further than Nick Rimando. His 73 percent save percentage in 2013 was the highest of any keeper who featured in at least 1,000 minutes last season. 

    When asked by RSL Insider Brian Dunseth about his vision for the club, Coach Cassar has no intention of deviating from the status quo: 

    It's definitely in line because it's all positive. Jason [Kreis] put a lot of things forth with this club. I was next to his side during all those ideas. It's working. It's what I believe in. Even more important, I believe in everything that's been said.

    Being a part of the blueprint that assembled the most aesthetic club in MLS—one that led the league in possession, successful passes and pass accuracy in 2013—will ease the transition of Kreis to Cassar. 

    It's incumbent on Cassar, however, to carry his men across the finish line in 2014.

The Number to Watch: 0.80

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    If you're looking for efficiency in 2014, look no further than Alvaro Saborio, especially now that Camilo Sanvezzo is no longer an MLS striker.

    Nagging injuries and international duty with his native Costa Rica forced Saborio to miss a bulk of the 2013 season. His 15 starts and 1,346 minutes played were the fewest he posted since he first joined Real Salt Lake in 2010. Despite such a low volume of activity, Saborio managed to post the second-highest strike rate when compared to the other elite goalscorers in MLS last season:

    Camilo Sanvezzo222,418.82
    Mike Magee212793.68
    Marco Di Vaio202746.66
    Robbie Keane161980.73
    Alvaro Saborio121346.80

    A model of consistency, Saborio ranked No. 6 in Benjamin Baer's list of the top marksmen for 2014 on MLS's official website. Baer additionally points out that the Costa Rican's 0.61 goals per 90 minutes since 2010 is second only to Chris Wondolowski (0.62).

    A prolific force atop the formation, expect Saborio to feature with Costa Rica this summer in Brazil. He'll be forced to sacrifice league minutes for a second consecutive season, but that shouldn't concern the club as long as he remains healthy. Saborio has already proven he has the propensity to be lethal with limited opportunities.

    His wife won't be the only one delivering in 2014.

The Player to Watch: Luis Gil

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    The Philadelphia Union paid a pretty penny to acquire the services of American Maurice Edu in the offseason. Last year, the Seattle Sounders dropped a bit more to bring home Clint Dempsey. We don't even want to discuss how much Toronto FC paid to acquire midfielder Michael Bradley.

    Real Salt Lake on the other hand...well, they went a different route.

    Since the tender age of 16, Luis Gil has been hyped as the "next big thing" for American soccer. The 20-year-old had his most productive season as a professional last year, scoring five goals and contributing three assists. Gil further displayed his dynamism on the ball by adding 25 take ons and 23 key passes to his resume.

    Such a prolific start to a young career led to his inclusion with the senior national team. He appeared in the closing minutes of the United States' 2-0 victory over South Korea, completing eight of nine passes and only losing possession once.

    Expectations have risen for 2014. Developing into a more consistent impact player remains a priority for the coming year. 

    According to Scott Pierece on MLS's official website, it's a challenge Gil accepts with open arms:

    I feel like I did that here and there last year, but I feel like I want to be more consistent...I've got to focus on RSL. It's awesome to have a team like this and management like that always supporting me. Especially at my age.

    Despite being a raw talent, RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey is aware of the talent he possesses. He claims Gil can become a "franchise player" in the future, one that doesn't severely impact the club's bottom line.

    They do things differently at RSL.

    Sprouting talent from the cultured footballing roots of the club's system is the only way to combat the lavish expenditures the competition prefers. Luis Gil is just the latest installment of that process. He'll look to equal the impact of big-money names in 2014, but at only a fraction of the cost.

The Match to Watch: Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    As if there could be any other answer.

    Real Salt Lake will return to the scene of the crime in 2014. The only opportunity to be rid of the sour taste left by Sporting Kansas City's victory in the MLS Cup final will come on April 5. Fingers crossed Jack Frost isn't wandering about, scouring the earth with frigid temperatures and unplayable conditions. 

    Sure, vengeance is a dish better served "cold." But no one wants to sit through another match bereft of quality football, especially when RSL are the ones occupying the field.

    The cheap thrills of penalty kicks won't save this early-season showdown. 

    A victory over the reigning champs won't entirely expunge another heartbreaking loss in a cup final, but it's a start and one Coach Cassar will gladly take. 

    Eduardo Mendez is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and analyst for Opta Sports. Follow him on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics.

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