We knew the level of player that we were potentially parting with. We knew that they were going to go and have impactful seasons for their new teams and that we would probably face a lot of scrutiny for moving these guys. —Garth Lagerwey, RSL General Manager
SANDY — Reflecting on the noteworthy roster overhaul that took place during the offseason, Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis admits the club probably should’ve done it sooner.
“We kind of took it for granted a little bit and got a little too comfortable and were OK with keeping the whole team together for a little bit too long,” said Kreis.
In many ways though, he and general manager Garth Lagerwey’s hands were tied.
When the two first began overhauling RSL’s roster after the 2007 season, Lagerwey said they tried to structure things for a three-year run by assembling a strong core. Of course, they fully expected to keep their core players longer than three years, but Lagerwey and Kreis figured that they would have to do some fringe retooling after three years.
The CONCACAF Champions League changed all that. After advancing out of CCL group play in 2010 — year three of the master plan — there was no way Kreis and Lagerwey were going to overhaul the team. RSL had a legitimate shot at winning the continental title.
RSL fell agonizingly short in the Champions League final at Rio Tinto Stadium in April of 2011, but no roster overhaul followed. After the 2011 season RSL had successfully secured one of U.S. Soccer’s four berths in the 2012-13 Champions League, and Lagerwey and Kreis believed they owed the players one more chance to claim continental glory.
Those hopes fizzled out 14 months ago with a scoreless draw against Costa Rican club Herediano, a result that realistically foreshadowed the significant roster changes last offseason — which Lagerwey hopes sets up RSL for another "three-year" run like it had from 2008-12.
Two trades in particular got the ball rolling on a roster rebuild that landed RSL in MLS Cup again.
In fact, it’s been one year and two days since Real Salt Lake made waves in MLS by trading away Will Johnson, Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola for allocation money.
The trio had been part of the backbone of RSL’s five-year playoff run, and even though salary cap restraints made the trades a necessary evil, Lagerwey expected a mixed response from fans.
“We knew the level of player that we were potentially parting with. We knew that they were going to go and have impactful seasons for their new teams and that we would probably face a lot of scrutiny for moving these guys,” said Lagerwey.
Sure enough, Olave and Espindola helped New York claim the Supporters’ Shield title while Johnson led resurgent Portland to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and earned himself a spot on the MLS Best XI squad.
Ironically enough, the 2013 season is now over for Olave, Espindola and Johnson — but Real Salt Lake is still playing.
Kreis doesn’t think it’s a coincidence either. He believes RSL is playing in MLS Cup this weekend because of the steadfastness showed by all after last season.
“We were humbled a little bit honestly. We had to take an approach that we were going to have to do a lot more work this offseason than we had the past several years,” he said.
“For me it’s been about putting your head down and going after it and working really, really hard again from a coaching point of view, from a scouting point of view to find those players, and then from an actual work point of view that the players are putting in. I think we’ve born the fruit of our labors, so to speak, to give ourselves (a chance) to win something really, really special this year.”