By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 3, 2023) US Soccer Players – Absences loomed large in the story of Major League Soccer in 2022. More than a few teams dealt with missing big names last season, a list that’s long enough that it’s not worth using the limited space available here to run it down. Just know that Sporting Kansas City, the Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, and others can claim to be among the clubs most damaged by key players not playing a significant role in their seasons. Also on that list? Real Salt Lake.
Unlike Sporting, Seattle, and Atlanta United, however, RSL made the postseason. Despite the absence of do-everything man Damir Kreilach, coach Pablo Mastroeni guided his team to a second-consecutive playoff berth. Mastroeni would have preferred to have had Kreilach in his lineup every week but figured out ways to get enough points without him to secure a place in the postseason.
Kreilach is back and he’s already on the scoresheet. He tallied the winning goal in RSL’s 2-1 win over Vancouver on the road at BC Place on Saturday.
That RSL finished seventh and made the playoff field last year was a credit to Mastroeni’s abilities as a coach and evidence that RSL made the right choice when the club selected the former Colorado Rapids manager as the permanent boss following his run as the interim head coach in 2021. MLS observers celebrate Mastroeni’s work in Utah as an example of “doing more with less” because the small-market club is perennially near the bottom of the league’s payroll rankings and does not have a star DP on the roster.
Kreilach is the closest thing RSL has to a big name. His return from the back injury that sidelined him for all but the first five games of the 2022 season gives the club an attacking focal point and a proven goalscorer that it did not have last season. Following Kreilach’s 16-goal, nine-assist year in 2021, both of which led the team), RSL’s stat leaders in 2022 were Sergio Cordova (nine goals) and Justin Meran (seven assists).
2022’s success came despite a 12-goal drop from 2021 to 2022, a drop that can be explained almost entirely by Kreilach’s absence. Getting him back in the lineup not only means production from the veteran himself, but more space and less defensive attention for the club’s other weapons.
RSL re-acquired winger Jefferson Savarino late in 2022 to aid the attack. Savarino scored seven goals in just over 1,500 minutes, a return that extrapolates to double-digit goals over 34 games. The club’s new ownership did invest in the future this winter, spending a reported $3.75 million on 20-year-old Colombian winger Carlos Andres Gomez.
With Savarino and Kreilach on the field together and Gomez working his way into the lineup, RSL looks like a much more dangerous team than they were at any point last year.
Maybe no team in MLS works harder as a unit and relies less on individual talent than Real Salt Lake. That trait carried the club through to the postseason in 2022 and on the evidence of the opening game of the schedule, looks to be in ample supply for 2023. Adding Kreilach back into the mix provides Mastroeni both a goal threat and the team’s emotional leader.
Few clubs in MLS possess identities as clear as Real Salt Lake’s. Kreilach, the unassuming former box-to-box midfielder who became the club’s best attacker, embodies that identity. It’s impossible to overstate what his return means.
NYCFC was missing players in 2022, too, though the circumstances for some of them were decidedly different. It wasn’t an injury that kept academy product James Sands from contributing to NYCFC’s title defense, but a loan. The club sent Sands to Rangers for a planned 18-month stint at the start of 2022 with an eye on the American improving his game abroad.
Anyone who remembers NYCFC’s run to the MLS Cup championship in 2021 will remember how important Sands was to that team. The club had the talent to compete in the Eastern Conference without him last season, reaching the conference title game where it fell to Philadelphia. Still, the announcement of Sands’ return from his loan in time for NYCFC’s second game of the 2023 season is a boost for a team dealing with big changes from last year. Hindsight being what it is, NYCFC fans can’t be faulted for wondering what last season would’ve been like with Sands in sky blue.
Sands rejoins NYCFC after the club’s opening day loss to Nashville SC in a game that illuminated the problems that head coach Nick Cushing is dealing with in the Bronx. The departures of Alexander Callens, Sean Johnson, Anton Tinnerholm, Heber, and Maxi Moralez represented the end of an era. Replacing five players of that caliber in one offseason is extremely difficult.
The returning Sands will help. As opposed to a brand new signing from outside of the club and/or league, Sands is a player who knows the system in New York, mostly unchanged by Cushing after he took over for Ronny Deila midseason last year, and the league. Sands is versatile and if necessary can step into roles in both the midfield and backline.
On Saturday in Nashville, Cushing chose Keaton Parks and 21-year-old homegrown Justin Haak, a player with fewer than 800 first-team minutes entering the season, to man central midfield. Both of those players will have significant roles moving forward, but the return of Sands means Cushing will soon be able to turn to the duo that pushed the club to its first-ever trophy, Sands and US international Alfred Morales. Morales dressed but did not play against Nashville due to a small injury and figures to be back in the starting lineup in short order.
While there are still questions about the attack, ones that might get something of an answer if reports prove accurate, issues in midfield suddenly seem a lot less daunting. Sands is a more accomplished player than when he left and represents an immediate upgrade for an ambitious club that is anxious to avoid any notions that 2023 is a rebuilding year.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
More From Jason Davis:
- How Austin FC, Houston, and Sporting Kansas City’s losses in week one suggest more from those clubs
- Three clubs looking to take another step in MLS
- The expectations for Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez, Atlanta’s Thiago Almada, and Dallas’s Jesus Ferreira in 2023
- The USMNT players on clubs in contention for promotion from the Championship
Photo by the Houston Dynamo