By Ethan Gomberg, Prost Amerika
Change is always expected for any sports franchise. After almost reaching North American glory in the CONCACAF Champions League, Real Salt Lake is no stranger to change–although since 2007, the Jason Kreis-led side has seen perhaps the fewest changes in Major League Soccer. Starting with casting off stars like Jeff Cunningham and Freddie Adu, Kreis began to build one of the most stable franchises currently in the league. In fact success and his “team is the star” mantra have led to a different type of motivator for change. Salary increases. This is the number one reason that has pushed RSL to invent new ways and strategies for signing new players. “Can we keep what we already have?” Fringe players that are “almost” starting-11-worthy are usually the first casualties in this type of agenda.
In the 2011 post season, RSL has seen several noticeable changes. Collen Warner, a highly prized midfielder from Portland, who was just drafted 2 seasons ago as possible diamond-formation replacement, was snatched up by Montreal Impact in the Expansion Draft. Warner was seen as potential heir apparent for Javier Morales, and when Morales went down last year with a horrendous injury, many RSL faithful, including Kreis, hoped that Warner could fulfill their belief. Warner didn’t live up to expectations (seriously though, who could actually step in and replace Morales? Not many in MLS I would wager).
The Haitian midfielder/forward Jean Alexandre, who saw extended starting time with Saborio and Espindola gone last year, was traded to San Jose as well. A star forward at his Division 2 school of Lynn in Florida, Alexandre was converted to a midfielder for most of his time at RSL. Coach Kreis, rather thin at forward position last year, tried Alexandre on several occasions. But like Warner, Alexandre was unable to fulfill expectations and the decision was made to trade him. At least with Alexandre RSL gained the value of a trade, although draft picks rarely bear fruit for RSL. Both Warner and Alexandre have a long future ahead of themselves. The Earthquakes were aggressive in trading for Alexandre and see him as a starter. Good for him. Warner has spent time in Europe training for the upcoming MLS season.
Some other changes for RSL were Robbie Russell heading to DC United. Russell is an interesting change. He was pushing the limits of what most pro soccer clubs call “old.” Was he? Well he was losing a step that was certain. And although his speed caused defensive lapses for RSL, his work in the last few playoff games (especially against the Sounders) was stellar. But his contract was getting too high, particularly with RSL looking to slim down the budget to pay some of the younger starters. Russell made it easy on RSL and asked to go to DC to be near his wife. It was a win-win-win for everyone (I include DC, RSL and Russell in that round of wins). Robbie, we will always have that PK to win the MLS Cup. God Speed.
We could talk about exceptional midfielder Arturo Alvarez, but when it came down to it, this talented player just wasn’t a good match with RSL. His rights were taken by Chivas USA in the re-entry draft but he has seems to have signed with a Portuguese side.
Another above average player to leave the squad in the offseason was hot and cold midfielder Nelson Gonzalez of Argentina. He had been with RSL for the last 2½ years on loan from Quilmes. However in the 2010 offseason, Nelson decided to not only get married but let the honeymoon last a little too long. When Gonzalez came into the 2011 preseason camp, he was out of shape and way behind where the demanding task master Kreis expected him. Even after he seemed to regain fitness, he was hurt and left again off the bench. In the 2011 offseason, RSL decided to not renew his loan and he returned to Argentina.
Perhaps the biggest change was when the last original RSL player, Andy “Bomma” Williams retired from the team. At 34, Williams was the oldest player on the team. His salary, although not as high as many others, was still taking up cash that RSL needed for other (read: younger) players. RSL GM Garth Lagerwey has gone on the record to say they offered Williams a one year contract to begin; they also offered to send him into the Re-Entry draft (where surely the star midfielder would have been taken by several clubs in dire need of his specialized skills).
In the end, Williams decided it was best for his family to stay in the community they love and continue working in soccer, if not on the field itself. From a RSL fan perspective, it was huge for Andy Williams to retire. As the last original member of the first RSL team, he had come full circle, from zero to hero. It will be interesting to see what his new role as senior scout for RSL will lead to. Will we see an increase of Reggae Boyz or Caribbean players for RSL?
In our next installment, we will look at those last year’s players returning to RSL in 2012.