"I think all of us felt as if we had failed," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "Not just not succeeded, but failed."
As players arrived at Rio Tinto Stadium this weekend for the start of preseason training, Kreis said he has his sights set on the league's highest prize, and a return to glory for his team.
"I told the players, 'We strive for perfection,' " Kreis said. "Perfection for us is about winning a championship, about advancing in tournaments like CONCACAF, and winning trophies."
But RSL will start the year with plenty of questions.
The team is three years removed from its MLS championship win. In that time, RSL has failed to add to its trophy case, but has been successful enough to earn allocation money from the league and keep a core group of players together. That bubble burst with last season's disappointment, forcing RSL brass to ship away Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson for cash and cap space.
The absence of those faces was felt by RSL's veterans Saturday.
"Every year when your friends leave the family, it's always tough," defender Nat Borchers said.
The team's back line also provides a troubling situation in the early going. Borchers, the team's center back, could miss three months after having surgery on his right quad. Left back Chris Wingert could also miss some early season games while recovering from a nagging foot injury.
Despite the offseason shakeup, Kreis said he sees similarities to 2009.
RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey was able to re-sign star midfielder Javier Morales, who said he received an offer from Espanyol of Spain's La Liga. Morales turned 33 earlier this month, but said that he feels better now than he did last year, when he was still dealing with the effects of a devastating 2011 ankle injury.
"All year I try to just play games, but now I'm ready," he said. "... Now it's going to be different."
Back, too, is forward Robbie Findley, who returns after two years in England.
"He's a great team chemistry guy," Kreis said. "He's extremely hard-working. And I think he's in the exact right position for success right now, because he's also a player who hasn't done well over the past year and a half since he left us. Let's be frank and honest. I don't think there's any reason to shy away from that. He has not succeeded in his latest endeavor, so he comes back to us with something to prove."
Asked what the measuring stick for this team's success will be, Findley answered right away.
"I think we've got to win the Cup again," he said.
By the time all the pieces are in place, Kreis said he expects competition for every position, something that was lacking last year and something that he believes "led us to a championship in 2009."
"In particular last year, I felt there were certain positions on the field not every position but there were certain positions where the players felt like they could float by through the week of training because [they were] going to start, and that will not be the case this year," he said.
While much of RSL's core from last season remains intact, Kreis said it will be imperative for young players such as defender Carlos Salcedo and midfielders Enzo Martinez and Sebastian Velasquez to contribute on the field.
"We're excited to have some new faces, some fresh blood in the group," Kreis said. "We're excited to be coaching our system again. Whereas the past couple years there hasn't been a lot of really breaking it down and coaching our system to players, it's just kind of refreshers for everybody. So we see this as a tremendous challenge. ... Can we do it all over again?"
Tuesday-Jan. 28 • Training in Casa Grande, Ariz.
Feb. 13 • RSL vs. New York Red Bulls
Feb. 16 • RSL vs. Seattle Sounders FC
Feb. 20 • RSL vs. New England Revolution
Feb. 23 • Championship and third-place matches