For months and months and months, there’s been chatter in Real Salt Lake circles about the inevitable dismantling of the team’s core this offseason due to salary cap restrictions.
On Monday, the hammer came down and the break-up was bigger than most could’ve imagined.
RSL cut four players and traded away four more, including franchise stalwarts Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson who’d been part of the team’s core since 2008.
The moves were all part of major cost-cutting that general manager Garth Lagerwey said became a necessity when RSL failed to advance out Champions League group play or make a deeper run in the MLS playoffs.
“The idea, the philosophy behind all the moves is to fundamentally restructure our salary cap to set up what will hopefully be another long, successful run and to identify positions where we have good young players who are ready to step up and contribute,” said Lagerwey during an ESPN700 interview on Monday.
Three of the eight players RSL cut ties with were forwards, which Lagerwey said is the biggest priority this offseason. He said the club failed to score goals in far too many big-time matches the past few seasons, and a change was necessary.
“In the biggest games that we’ve played at home in front of sold-out crowds we have not been able to score a goal and that’s something that we’re seeking to address this offseason,” said Lagerwey.
Most recently, those disappointing performances included the MLS Playoff ouster against Seattle and the CCL ouster against Herediano, two games in which RSL failed to score despite frenzied crowds at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The roster offloading was primarily to acquire allocation money, a method to increase a team’s salary cap.
RSL traded Olave and Espindola to the New York Red Bulls and Johnson to Portland for allocation money.
“By acquiring a lot of allocation money today we’ve affected a seven-figure swing from a cap perspective. To be clear, we came into this offseason where we knew we had to cut 25 percent of payroll and we have done that. We’re now under the cap and with all the money we’ve acquired through various deals we now have enough, we think, to go out and acquire a couple of forwards and potentially possibly a third player,” said Lagerwey.
Other offloading moves included trading Justin Braun to Toronto for defender Aaron Maund, in addition to declining the contract options on Paulo Jr., Kyle Reynish, Jonny Steele and Emiliano Bonfigli.
The day wasn’t all about cutting ties as RSL re-signed defenders Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran. The club also signed 24-year-old goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who spent the past two seasons with Tampa Bay in the NASL.
“I’m really excited,” Wingert said. “I’ve said all along that Real Salt Lake is where I wanted to be. I love all the guys on the team — it’s been a great five-and-a-half years for me here and I’m looking forward to being here in 2013 and beyond.”
Javier Morales remains the lone piece of the RSL offseason puzzle that didn’t come to a resolution on the first day MLS teams could make offseason transactions. The midfielder is out of contract, and Lagerwey said negotiations on a new one are ongoing.
“With Javier, I expect that a resolution will come or not come within the next week or so. I think the other place he might go is Mexico. I think that those teams are now beginning to become active, they just had their final this weekend and those teams are beginning to become active in pursuing players,” said Lagerwey.
Regardless of where Morales ends up, Monday brought the end of an era for RSL. Olave appeared in 120 matches the past five seasons, was named the 2010 MLS Defender of the Year and an MLS Best XI selection in both 2010 and 2011. Injuries hampered him throughout the season, and RSL obviously feels comfortable passing the center torch back to Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe.
Espindola made 125 appearances in five years with Real Salt lake, scoring 35 goals and recording 17 assists.
Johnson appeared in 114 matches in four-and-a-half seasons in Utah, notching 10 goals and eight assists. He was often referred to as the hardest-working player on the field.
“What we’re doing right now is tweaking our core. We’re trying to get a little bit younger, but to be honest with you, it’s all about the right mix of experience and youth,” said Lagerwey. “We want to keep the mentors in place to take along and educate our younger players so we can hopefully have a good transition without a big dip in form.”