In the span of a few hours over a fateful morning last December, Real Salt Lake closed the doors on one of the most decorated postseason runs in Major League Soccer history. Well, at least that’s the way it appeared.
In a series of money-saving transactions — which occurred exactly one year ago Tuesday — Real Salt Lake traded away four players and cut four more. The club dealt Will Johnson to Portland and sent Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola to New York, opting to replace those veteran all-stars with younger, more cost-effective players.
For a team that had reached the postseason five consecutive years — highlighted by its 2009 MLS Cup championship — that day marked the equivalent of a rebuilding project.
But certainly an accelerated one.
Only one year later, Real Salt Lake will battle Sporting Kansas City at 3 p.m. Saturday at Sporting Park with a chance to capture its second league championship in five seasons.
“It’s a credit to our veteran players that remain,” Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey said in a teleconference Monday. “When they see a Will Johnson leave, a Jamison Olave leave, a Fabian Espindola leave, they could have thrown up their hands and said, ‘What are these crazy guys doing?’ They didn’t. They stuck with us. They believed in our plan. Far from bailing, they doubled down in mentoring the young players we brought in.”
The reasoning behind the offseason moves was obvious. Real Salt Lake needed to cut payroll to sneak under the MLS salary cap.
After realizing there was indeed a market for its veteran players, the club opted to pull the trigger on the deals — even if they weren’t necessarily popular.
“We knew the level of players we were parting with,” Lagerwey said. “We knew they were going to have impact seasons with their new teams and we would face a lot of scrutiny for moving those guys.”
It certainly didn’t help that Johnson enjoyed an all-star season with Portland, scoring nine goals and assisting on five others.
But the departure of Johnson, Olave and Espindola — all starters on the 2009 championship team — left openings for younger and cheaper options with defender Chris Schuler, who has started all four playoff games, and Luis Gil, who scored five goals this season. Gil turned 20 last month.
The replacements have been effective as of late, but they didn’t make quick transitions into the lineup. Real Salt Lake started the season 3-4-2 and was shut out in all four losses.
“We’ve had to shuffle things around a lot this year,” said midfielder Ned Grabavoy, a two-time MLS Cup champion. “Maybe it was for the best to have that happen at the beginning of the year to get guys time and get guys confident. But without question I think it’s a situation where the older core of guys on the team have had to do a little more with (leadership) because of the number of young players and new players in our system.”