Sandy • Real Salt Lake's 2011 unfolded like a three-act melodrama.
Now, following several seasons worth of highs and lows compressed into one, RSL looks forward to keeping its core group together for 2012. It was a group that, despite myriad injuries, red cards and suspensions, finished with the third-best record in Major League Soccer and earned a place in the Western Conference Championship.
"It's nice having these guys together," RSL midfielder Will Johnson said. "There's no lack of talent on the club. In a league where you have a salary cap and you only have X-amount of dollars, you need your guys to be fit and healthy. You need everbody to step up. Hopefully everybody feels the same way, and I think they do."
The expectation for 2012, a season that includes a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, is nothing less than a return to the MLS Cup. RSL seeks a second championship banner to fly alongside the team's 2009 title.
To get there, however, RSL coach Jason Kreis, general manager Garth Lagerwey and president Bill Manning face the delicate task of deepening the roster as well as deciding which of the handful of veterans they want to re-sign all within the structure of a $2.81 million salary cap. There's also money earned from playing in CONCACAF as well as from the league's luxury tax.
"We don't know yet what that [allocation money] will be," Lagerwey said. "It might increase beyond the $2.81 million, but I don't think it will increase significantly.
"That's the ballpark we're living in, and we will have some extremely difficult decisions to make on player contracts."
Unlike Los Angeles or New York, RSL is not a franchise with deep enough pockets to sign designated players, high-priced stars whose salary could be considered outside of the team's salary cap. A team can have three DPs with $500,000 of each player's salary charged to the cap and the rest paid by the team's owner.
First on the agenda is re-signing striker Fabian Espindola, RSL's second-leading scorer with 10 goals. Decisions must also be made about defenders Robbie Russell and Ned Grabavoy, and midfielders Arturo Alvarez and Andy Williams, who are also out of contract options. Williams is the only player remaining with the team since Kreis was named coach in 2007.
Also, RSL is sure to lose a player to the MLS Expansion Draft in late November. The team can protect 11 players, as well as 17-year-old Luis Gil, part of Generation Adidas.
"The completely honest answer is we don't yet," Kreis said Wednesday about knowing RSL's roster plans. "We are three days removed from [the end of the] season. We have a lot of talking and thinking to do. Critical decisions about expansion and picking up players' contracts are coming. They're several weeks away, two or three away from making any announcements."
Espindola's contract negotiations could be sticky. According to the MLS Players Union, the Argentine is earning $75,000, compared with his RSL counterpart Alvaro Saborio, whose contract is worth $250,000.
Midfielder Javier Morales is RSL's highest paid player at $400,000.
"To be clear, we want Fabian back," Lagerwey said. "He's been an excellent player for us. I think he wants to come back. We want him to come back and you hope … we can work it out. He had his best year for us.
"This is less about Fabian than it is the cap."
Contracts aside, Real Salt Lake coaches will soon hit the scouting trail. Kreis' assistants, including Jeff Cassar, will pay special attention to college tournaments. Meanwhile, Kreis will make what he hopes is another successful venture to South America in an attempt to find quality depth at a reasonable price.
Kreis will mine the land for players who will buy into his philosophy: The team is the star.
"One thing this group has shown this year is they don't quit, and they have some real character," Kreis said. "We have a very, very good core of players to build upon. Now I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I think in the end it was good enough. We need to try and improve every single year, and we'll do the same this offseason."
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• Real Salt Lake faces contract decisions on Fabian Espindola, RSL's second-leading scorer with 10 goals, as well as veterans Robbie Russell, Ned Grabavoy and Andy Williams.
• RSL's salary cap for 2012 is $2.81 million.
• RSL's goals for 2012 are to deepen its roster and complement the core group that finished third in MLS.