After a fairytale run in the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, Real Salt Lake return this year looking to prove they're the real deal.
Whether by luck, tactical genius, or a mix of the two, RSL took out some of the Western Conference's biggest contenders in the post-season. Was it a fluke, or a sign of things to come under Pablo Mastroeni?
Here's everything you need to know about Real Salt Lake ahead of the new MLS season, including tactics, key players, and predictions.
How did Real Salt Lake perform in 2021?
Only the bottom three - Texas sides FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, and Austin FC - lost more games than Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference during the 2021 regular-season, but only the top four of Colorado Rapids, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, and Portland Timbers won more.
In short, RSL were wildly inconsistent but ridiculously entertaining. You didn't know which team would turn up from one week to the next, and their commitment to attacking soccer made them a great inclusion in the Playoffs.
In the end, it came down to the last kick of the season, with Damir Kreilach scoring a 95th-minute winner away at Sporting Kansas City that saw them leapfrog the LA Galaxy into seventh place.
Most thought that would be the end of the road, but how mistaken they were. First, RSL beat Seattle Sounders away on penalties after being out-shot 21-0 across 90 minutes and extra time. Then, they did the unthinkable and pulled off a 2-1 away win at Sporting KC, utterly dominating after merely scraping through in the previous round.
It all came to an end with a 2-0 defeat to the Timbers at Providence Park, but to make the Western Conference final as the bottom seed in the West was simply stunning.
Real Salt Lake transfer activity
- Johan Kappelhof (from Chicago Fire, free transfer)
- Scott Caldwell (from New England Revolution, free transfer)
- Jasper Loffelsend (SuperDraft)
- Pedro Fonseca (SuperDraft)
- Sergio Cordova (from Augsburg, loan)
- Albert Rusnak (to Seattle Sounders, free transfer)
- Douglas Martinez (to Sacramento FC, free transfer)
- Justin Portillo (to New Mexico Utd, free transfer)
- Jeizon Ramirez (to Tachira, free transfer)
- Noah Powder (to Indy Eleven, free transfer)
- Milan Iloski (to Orange County, free transfer)
- Ashtone Morgan (to Forge FC, free transfer)
- Toni Datkovic (to FC Cartagena, undisc.)
- Donny Toia (released)
- Andrew Putna (released)
Pablo Mastroeini: Tactics and style of play
Since Pablo Mastroeni took over as interim boss on August 27th - following the shock departure of Freddy Juarez, who is now Seattle Sounders assistant coach - RSL's commitment to attacking soccer has only intensified.
During that period, Salt Lake are second in MLS regular-season matches for open-play goals (24) and fourth for expected goals.
Mastroeni has tried multiple systems, including 4-4-2, 4-3-3, and 3-4-1-2, settling on the latter most often. This allows Aaron Herrera to drive forward on the right, protected by three center-backs, while a solid midfield two do the dirty work as Damir Kreilach operates in the hole. His late runs have become an invaluable source of goals for RSL.
Salt Lake are fast on the break, create lots of width, and will almost always look to play forward as soon as they get the ball.
With Mastroeni now on board permanently, don't count on those attacking instincts going away any time soon, though we expect a switch to 4-2-3-1.
Real Salt Lake predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Ochoa, Herrera, Silva, Glad, Brody; Everton Luiz, Ruiz; Rubin, Kreilach, Menendez; Wood.
Who are Real Salt Lake's key players?
With 16 goals, Damir Kreilach was only three short of Taty Castellanos and Ola Kamara in the Golden Boot race, while he also chipped in with eight assists.
He was RSL's chief attacking threat and a huge creative force, but also key to their direct style, winning 135 aerial duels - at least 73 more than any other teammate. Kreilach will use his height and strength to bully defenders and bring others into play, and if he gets the jump on you at the far post, you're finished.
Kreilach's late Decision Day goal got RSL to the 2021 Playoffs and he does have a habit of stepping up in big moments.
Of Kreilach's 16 goals, six were set up by Aaron Herrera, making them the joint-best assister-to-goalscorer partnership in MLS in 2021.
The USA youth international - who has considered a switch to Guatemala - enjoyed the best year of his career so far, providing 10 assists in total, while ranking second at the club for successful dribbles (34).
Sure, Herrera is primarily an attacking force and will leave gaps behind him, but that's only by design. And it's so damned effective. Under no circumstances must you give him the time to lift his head up and pick out a cross.
Every fairytale needs a villain and in Real Salt Lake's (or rather, teams playing against them), it was David Ochoa.
Whether it was saving penalties, putting up huge saves, or getting right under the skin of every single person in the stadium not of an RSL persuasion, Ochoa did everything in his power during the 2021 Playoffs.
But most importantly, Ochoa is a supreme young goalkeeper looking to attract European attention and make an impression on the Mexican national team. He has a big year ahead of him and could be busy between the sticks.
Real Salt Lake 2022 season prediction
RSL were a joy to watch in 2021, but it's going to be very difficult for them to repeat their achievements this time around.
For one, they haven't done a great deal to strengthen their existing squad aside from a couple of depth pieces. And most worryingly, talismanic forward Albert Rusnak has departed for the Seattle Sounders on a free transfer. A truly devastating loss and one RSL may take some time to recover from.
Prediction: 11th in the Western Conference