At long last! The 2020 Major League Soccer season is one day away from being upon us, and our long nights of Orlando City-less suffering will soon be at an end. Tomorrow the Lions will start the new season at home against Real Salt Lake, a team that had a rather different 2019 than OCSC did.
To prepare for tomorrow’s match I spoke with Lucas Muller, one of the editor’s over at RSL Soapbox. He did an excellent job catching me up with this year’s iteration of Real Salt Lake, and I also answered a few of his questions, which you can find over at their place.
Despite a slightly rocky start to last year, RSL turned things around in a big way, finishing third in the Western Conference and advancing to the conference semifinals. Obviously a ball has yet to be kicked in 2020, but judging by this year’s squad and what the team was able to do last year, what do you believe the goal should be for 2020? Where is the ceiling for RSL?
Lucas Muller: Real Salt Lake had a very positive surge when Freddy Juarez took over as head coach in the summer. This off-season has seen the most changes in the roster in recent memory, so it will be a real test for Juarez to see if he can mold that squad quickly. Owner Dell Loy Hansen has said the goal is to be in the top four in the west. Juarez said they want to compete for trophies, presumably MLS Cup and the Supporters Shield.
Can they find the kind of success they had in 2019? That’s very difficult to say at this point. They have a lot of talent on this team, but everyone in the west is getting better. RSL’s strategy has been to sign young promising players, mostly from their academy or USL team, but some from outside the league entirely. They also have gone after free agents, such as Ashtone Morgan, Giuseppi Rossi, and Justin Meram. That makes for a bit of a rag-tag squad, but if Juarez can get this set of players to gel, then they could a top four team.
This will be a make or break season for Juarez. He did a fantastic job after Mike Petke was fired, but that could have been a new manager bump. Freddy is well respected by all the academy players (where he was once coached), but it will be fascinating to see if he can get bigger names like Meram and Rossi on board.
Let’s talk a bit more about the squad itself. In your opinion, what is the strong point of this roster? What do you expect this team to do best?
LM: The back line was stellar in 2019 and remains largely unchanged this season. Nedum Onuoha, who joined at the end of 2018 from Queens Park Rangers (and formerly of Manchester City), made himself the leader on the back line. He’s a commanding presence on the field, but also a leader off the field as well.
The key changes this season are in Real’s attack. Jefferson Savarino was sold to Atlético Mineiro in Brazil, Joao Plata was waived, and Bofo Saucedo left for Pumas in Liga MX on a free. The team signed Justin Meram, and he’ll be the main left winger in RSL’s 4-2-3-1 system. They replaced Savario on the right wing with another young Venezuelan attacker in Jeizon Ramírez. The biggest signing was that of U.S.-born Italian international Giuseppe Rossi. Rossi has played for Manchester United, Villarreal, and Fiorentina, and has 30 caps with Italy. He’s a guy who has really struggled to stay healthy, so this is a bit of a second chance for the 33-year-old center forward. If he can stay healthy, it’ll be the first time since Álvaro Saborío was traded in 2015 that RSL has played with a true and consistent center forward. Sam Johnson is still a DP on the team, despite dealing with an injury last season, and he can be a game changer. Douglas Martinez was signed from Real Monarchs and is a very talented center forward as well.
Those moves mean that Damir Kreilach, who often played as a false nine, can drop deeper into his more familiar midfield role. With Albert Rusnak as the creative play-maker, and Everton Luiz as the midfield enforcer, it’s not entirely clear where Kyle Beckerman will fit or who gets dropped.
Overall, I expect the defense to remain the strongest part of RSL’s game, but the attack is a strong contender as well if players stay healthy and they gel with one another. Saturday will be absolutely fascinating to see how everything comes together.
One of my questions I asked you when these teams met last year was about Sam Johnson. How was the rest of his 2019 season, and what are your expectations for him in 2020?
LM: Sam Johnson had a decent first season with RSL, scoring nine goals in the 1,301 minutes he played. He had a nagging injury, which is still ongoing unfortunately, so his production dropped off about halfway through the season. He scored just one goal from July 3 to the end of the season. He had a corrective surgery and is currently working on strengthening his leg so the knee issue doesn’t come back. Head Coach Freddy Juarez said he expects him to be out a few weeks.
If Rossi stays healthy, Johnson won’t start. He’s a low-end DP who can be bought down to the TAM level. In an ideal situation for RSL, Rossi would start with Sam coming in as a super-sub for the last half hour or so. If healthy, there should be some good competition for that center-forward role, and he could easily pass his nine goals from last season.
Are there any injuries or suspensions that will keep players unavailable for selection? What’s your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
LM: The team has yet to announce their injury report, but we know that Johnson is still rehabbing. It sounds like Corey Baird is injured as well, and Beckerman went off injured in the team’s last preseason game and it seems unlikely that he starts. Martinez and Kreilach had “knocks” early in the season the team was monitoring, but I don’t expect them to miss this game. Midfielder Luke Mulholland is also injured. Everton Luiz is on a red card suspension. Jeizon Ramírez was having some passport issues, so it’s unclear if he’ll be available.
My lineup prediction is: Zac MacMath in goal, a back line of Donny Toia, Justen Glad, Onuoha, and Aaron Herrera. Nick Besler and Kreilach in the midfield, with Rusnak in an attacking midfield role. The attack will be Meram on the left wing, Rossi at center forward, and Maikel Chang at right wing (though it’s possible that Ramírez is available for this game).
Everton Luiz will be suspended due to the red card he picked up during RSL’s playoff game against the Sounders. For the record, it was 100% a red card but by no means the worst tackle in MLS history.
My score prediction is 2-1 to RSL
As always, a big thank you to Lucas for sharing that info on Real Salt Lake.