Since their entrance into the league, Real Salt Lake have been one of the most consistent teams in MLS. Having qualified for the playoffs every year from 2008-14, RSL have an MLS Cup title, a CONCACAF Champions’ League Runner-up finish, and a U.S. Open Cup Runner-up place to show for their consistency.
There are a couple of hallmarks of their style of play. First, there’s an undeniable core to the side, most notably up the spine with players like Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Javier Morales, and Alvaro Saborio manning the center of the field for the majority of that run. Other starters come and go, but much of that player pool has been present in some form or another.
The second hallmark is a stout defense and opportunistic attack. This leaves a lot of moving pieces for the offense, with different formations and players being employed to change with the times in front of the customary backline. With the Designated Player Rule, this gives an added incentive to take gambles on attackers. RSL have found a different way to use the rule more often than not, but has it worked out?
All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt.
All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys.
An asterisk (*) indicates a player who signed their DP deal mid-tenure with club.
Introduction to Series and Updating Chart of Profiled Clubs
DC United: C
FC Dallas: C+
Columbus Crew: B
Sporting KC: B-
New York Red Bulls: B-
San Jose Earthquakes: C
New England Revolution: C+
Los Angeles Galaxy: B+
Chicago Fire: C-
Colorado Rapids: B-
Real Salt Lake (founded)
Age When Signed*: 28
Average Base Salary per Season: $281,667
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.684
The Costa Rican striker was signed by Monterrey (MX) at a young age and came up in their youth ranks. He made his senior debut at 19 with Saprissa (CR). His breakout year came at age 21, when he lead the Costa Rica Primera Division with 25 goals. He also won the CONCACAF Champions Cup with Saprissa, eventually earning a spot on Costa Rica’s World Cup squad in 2006. From there, he was signed by Swiss side FC Sion, turning down a rumored move to Stoke City in 2009 to go on loan with Bristol City. He decided to head back to North America in 2010, spending the year on loan with RSL. He impressed, scoring 12 goals in 27 matches, earning MLS Newcomer of the Year in the process.
After his impressive loan stint, RSL made a full transfer, with Saborio becoming the club’s first Designated Player leading up to the 2011 season. Saborio didn’t miss a beat over his four-plus-year stint, scoring 51 goals in 100 league matches to become the club’s all-time leading scorer (currently sitting 14 goals above his closest competitor). He was the 2013 FutbolMLS.com Latino del Año, averaging 13 goals a year from 2011-2013, including a 17-goal year in 2012. While he sustained his international reputation (earning 105 caps), he began to pick up injuries and inconsistent results starting in 2014, playing just 16 matches that season as a broken metatarsal forced him out of the World Cup. His scoring rate dropped significantly the next year, and in July, he was traded to D.C. United for midfielder Luis Silva.
Reuiniting with former RSL strike partner Fabian Espindola for a year, Saborio has embraced a spot-starter/super-sub role in the District, scoring 8 goals and adding 3 assists in 27 games (17 starts).
While injuries knocked him out of extended action toward the end of his tenure, Saborio was a crucial part of the club’s MLS Cup-finalist appearance in 2013 as well as their CONCACAF Champions League run in 2011. Even as his minutes began to dwindle, he was a beloved figure for the club and is an important part of their growing history as they close out their first decade.
Age When Signed*: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $320,833
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.683
It’s hard to believe that Javier Morales ever played for a club besides RSL. However, Morales was a journeyman for the first decade of his career, bouncing around four different clubs in Argentina’s top-flight from 1998-2006 before spending a year with UD Vecindario in Spain’s second-tier. Originally playing as a winger and seeing a few minutes as a second striker, Morales eventually worked into his natural position as a #10.
Morales joined Real Salt Lake in August 2007, still 27 years old but looking to set up a more stable standing in a club. Seeing the field for just 369 minutes in his first season, he scored a goal and added two assists, just a teaser of what he was capable of. His big breakout came the next year, where he scored 6 and assisted 15 times. While not quite as prolific, Morales was indispensable for RSL, and by the end of 2010, there were questions about whether or not the team could hold onto him.
They could. He was signed as a DP going into the 2011 season, allowing him to finally settle into a groove. Unfortunately, a fracture-dislocation in his left ankle against Chivas USA forced him out for the majority of the season, making his return in 2012 a crucial moment for the club. Luckily he delivered, returning to his prior All-Star form and continuing to be a consistent source of goals and assists. As the club looked to add further offensive sparks, they bought down his contract with allocation money.
A very solid piece of business for RSL to keep Morales around. He’s likely the most prolific player in club history, and with 80 career assists, he’s tied for tenth place in league history. His consistency and leadership can’t go unmentioned.
Age When Signed: 27
Average Base Salary per Season: $216,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.412
A 5’11” Argentine striker, Jaime started his career with Universidad Católica at 21, scoring 13 goals in his first year-plus. He was sold to Argentinos Juniors, but after only one appearance he moved across the country to La Serena. He found consistent results (scoring 10 goals in 19 matches) and moved to Chile’s Unión Española in 2011. He scored 44 goals in 123 matches, still respectable despite a slight drop in productivity. In 2014, his contract with UE was expiring, and he decided to embark on a new challenge.
Jaime signed with RSL in August, looking to provide a punch to the team’s attack late in the season. He was unable to get a goal or assist across 6 appearances and hoped to contend for regular minutes behind Saborio and Joao Plata for 2015. He was a regular starter up top, starting 17 of his 20 appearances, but scored just 5 goals and added 2 assists. Four of his goals came in a five-match stretch in June and July, but he wasn’t able to build any further momentum. By the end of the year, he was a spot-starter, and he didn’t put a shot on goal for the club after his goal against Seattle on August 22nd–a span of 243 minutes.
Jaime went back to where it all began for him, signing with U. Católica during the winter in 2016. He made six appearances down the stretch, failing to score. At 29, he figures to have another chance or two to turn it around.
While his cap-hit wasn’t damning and he was occasionally solid, Jaime failed to make a major impact with regular minutes. On top of that, he blocked young Plata and more consistent Saborio from starts, and the club’s output under Jeff Cassar suffered because of it.
Age When Signed*: 32
Average Base Salary per Season: $625,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.116
Kyle Beckerman has never been the flashiest player on the field, but his route to a big payday is remarkable. Beckerman was born in Maryland to a pair of teachers. He represented the USA in the 1999 U-17 World Cup, but failed to get Youth National Team minutes afterward. After excelling at soccer and wrestling, Beckerman signed with MLS at 17, being claimed by Miami Fusion for the 2000 season. He only got 124 minutes before the club was contracted and was relocated to Colorado. He made 145 appearances for the Rapids, and by 2006 (to the tune of 7 goals and 4 assists) he was a respected offensive midfielder. However, his 2007 trade to RSL (for Mehdi Ballouchy) saw him repositioned to a defensive midfield role, and by 2008 he had mastered it, grabbing the captain’s armband along the way. 2009 brought nine USMNT caps (and his only international goal), and his profile was on the rise. His profile saw a further bump when Jurgen Klinsmann took over for Bob Bradley, making Beckerman a regular call-up and one of the more important Nats during their 2014 World Cup run.
While there were certainly clubs across the world interested in the dreadlocked one’s services, Real Salt Lake gave him a pay raise before 2015. He had just three points (1G, 2A–his lowest output since RSL acquired him), but he was again a stabilizing presence for a club that had lost their manager and several key defenders during the previous offseason. Meanwhile, Beckerman became the field player with the most MLS appearances in October, and he has 395 to date.
While Morales may be the most prolific RSL player, Beckerman is the heart and soul of the club. Losing him would have stung more than any single piece (yes, even Nick Rimando), and buying his salary figure down with allocation money opened up a spot while giving him a needed pay raise.
Age When Signed*: 23
Average Base Salary per Season: $167,500
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.633
The young, 5’2″ Ecuadorian forward came up the ranks with LDU Quito, making his professional debut at 18 in 2010. He spent 2011 on loan with Toronto FC and, after scoring 3 goals and impressing in 26 appearances, the club signed him permanently in 2012, letting him finish the season out with Quito before he joined. For reasons that are still unknown, Toronto traded Plata to RSL for a second-round pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft (a pick used on Edwin Rivas). Plata immediately contributed to the perennial contenders, adding 4 goals and 8 assists in 29 appearances. He broke out in 2014 with 13 goals and 6 assists, becoming one of the highest-rated young players in the league.
After getting callups to the Ecuadorian National Team in October 2014 and netting a brace against El Salvador, Plata was in high demand. RSL bought down the contracts of Morales and Beckerman and upped Plata’s wages, keeping him in Salt Lake City. While he missed half of 2015 with injuries, he came back with a vengeance this spring, and at the midpoint of the season he has 6 goals and 7 assists. After a particularly impressive month of March, he was MLS’ Player of the Month. He’s taken over Morales’ mantle as the main point of attack and shows no signs of slowing down.
Much like Mauro Diaz in Dallas, being able to keep a player like Plata is an important decision for the club. While he’ll never be the traditional target man, he’s dangerous centrally or on the wing, allowing for flexibility as Cassar sets his lineups. Still just 24 years old, Plata has plenty of soccer left in him.
Age When Signed: 29
Average Base Salary per Season: $885,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.424
Nicknamed Burrito (Spanish for “Little Donkey”), Martinez made his debut at 17 for Vélez Sársfield in 2003. Over ten years with the club, Martinez scored 26 goals in 153 appearances around loan appearances in Argentina, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia. After sharing the 2010 Argentina Footballer of the Year award with Lionel Messi (I’m serious), Martinez was poised for bigger things, moving onto Corinthians in 2012. There, he saw his minutes slashed, he joined Boca Juniors in January 2013, but the surprise addition of Carlos Tevez in 2015 pushed him further down the depth chart. By that summer he was ready for a change of pace.
Martinez signed with RSL during the summer 2015 window, easing his way into the lineup but failing to truly capitalize on his minutes as the team fell out of playoff contention. After a full off-season to work into the team, Martinez came back in a big way this spring. To date, he has 6 goals and 2 assists. Remarkably, 3 of his goals have been match-winners, while two more have secured a draw for the club.
It’s still a bit early to say with Martinez, but he’s been much better in his first full season. He garnered a bit of All-Star buzz (for what that’s worth) this season, but he’s overshadowed by more experienced players on his roster and bigger scorers outside of RSL. Still, he’s a fine addition to the attack corps and figures to play an important role moving forward.
Age When Signed: 29
Average Base Salary per Season: $200,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.450
The Armenian international was born in Azerbaijan but relocated with his parents in 1992 amongst civil unrest. He played for Pasadena High School and went to the local community college before MLS scouts took notice. He was signed to a Generation Adidas contract and was selected 4th overall by Kansas City, a major surprise at the time. He was used sparingly across his first two years and traded in late 2007 to RSL for picks and an international roster spot. He scored 15 goals in 53 matches for RSL in his first stint, becoming a fan favorite and showing the promise that made him such a sought-after prospect. He moved on and joined Randers FC in Denmark’s top flight, scoring 12 goals in 30 matches before heading to Russian side Krasnodar. Then, Movsisyan was sold to giants Spartak Moscow for $8.5 million, where he scored a hat-trick in his debut. 2015 saw a slight cut in his playing time, and the club worked out a loan to reunite him with RSL.
Movsisyan hasn’t missed a beat in his return to MLS, scoring seven goals and adding an assist while starting 19 matches. The RSL’s attack had sputtered in 2015, but the front-line of Plata-Movsisyan-Martinez has done wonders to remedy the drought. This has skyrocketed RSL back into the playoff picture, sitting 4th in the West on PPG.
There are only two real questions with Movsisyan. First, how prudent is it to use a DP slot on a mid-prime attacker while he’s on a loan? Second, while the MLSPU lists his salary at $200k, Moscow was paying him a reported $1,750,000. If that figure is truly into seven-digits, his acquisition looks less wise.
Average Signing Age: 28.4
Average Base Salary: $385,143
Average Grade: B
At first, it’s a bit surprising to see Real Salt Lake’s grade come in so high. Aside from the inconsistent Jaime, every single one of their signings has hit the mark. In the cases of Plata, Morales, and Beckerman, it was a matter of locking down a member of their core for the foreseeable future. With Saborio, Martinez, and Movsisyan, it was about finding the right balance up top. Either way (with the exception of Beckerman), every use of the DP slot has been on an attacker, a credit to the work that Kreis and Cassar have done to fortify the backline. Honestly, that’s also a major compliment to Rimando, as the club can get away with a piecemeal defense knowing that they’re in good hands with their goalkeeper. In this case, it looks like RSL has bested their Rocky Mountain neighbors in Colorado.
Next week: Chivas USA