Before RSL walks into the biggest game of the season, I’d like to take a minute and reflect on something that got a lot of discussion at the beginning of the year. Early this season, after RSL had lost Fabian Espindola and waived Paulo Jr., there was discussion about a mysterious, speedy South American striker who could potentially eventually partner up with Alvaro Saborio. We eventually learned that that striker was Olmes Garcia who had previously done an interview with a Spanish language publication in which he said his biggest dream was to be able to play soccer on a field that wasn’t pitted and marred with rocks. Welcome to the MLS, Olmes. But while we know who that particular Striker X came to be, Real Salt Lake’s forward depth has been such that every single one of their forwards has contributed positively to the team. Which begs the question: which one of these is really “Striker X”? All of them have added an x factor to the team. Last season, RSL had trouble finishing. Outside of Sabo, their goal scoring was spotty. This year, the new, young strike team and a revitalized midfield have scored buckets of goals. So let’s talk about that.
Olmes was the actual Striker X, immediately asserting himself and taking teams by surprise by his speed and athleticism. He scored his first MLS goal in his third game just 10 minutes after being brought on in the 56th minute for Joao Plata. He’d go on to score another 4 goals including a brace to win against the Galaxy with both goals coming within the last 10 minutes of the game. Garcia brought a real x factor to the game — no one knew who he was for his first several appearances — and he was able to take full advantage of that, getting behind defenses and zipping by outside backs or cutting across the midfield. But he also contributed in assists, racking up 6 in all competitions.
RSL re-acquired Robbie when they lost Will Johnson to Portland. Robbie came with a lot of expectations — many of which were never met during the first half, and really the majority of the 2013 season. There were moments, but they were fleeting, and overall he was inconsistent. However, he’s cranked up the volume since the playoffs have started and managed to poach not one but two goals off of defensive mistakes in the postseason. Robbie was maybe the most natural or expected partner for Sabo, but to date, they haven’t paired on the pitch that many times — Findley was last seen alongside another Striker X candidate…
Who is this kid from New Mexico(?!) with the hair and the goatee? Devon was snatched up in the 2013 draft but unlike RSL rookie norm, he didn’t spend the season warming the bench or hoping for a token seat in the 18 — he was immediately, and impressively, put into action. And he has yet to disappoint. While not a real strike partner for Sabo — his playing style is a bit too similar to Sabo’s — he’s contributed to the team as much as — or arguably more than — Saborio. As a recent post on RSL Soapbox pointed out. Devon’s influence extends beyond just goal-scoring, he allows the midfield to get into the attack and score goals.
That leads us to Joao Plata. The shortest player on the team (in MLS?) was acquired from Toronto FC, where he wasn’t really being used — and certainly wasn’t as dynamic a player as he has been for Real Salt Lake. He’s been a fairly consistent starter when we’ve needed someone to step up, and has notched 4 goals and 8 assists, which doesn’t take into account the handfuls of just-barely-missed shots. Joao has also taken many of Javier Morales’ typical roles of corners and penalties and has led to Javi scoring not once, but twice off of corner kicks. Joao’s enthusiasm is contagious, and watching his celebrations when his teammates score is, honestly, heartwarming. Missing from this list, of course, is Benji Lopez — an Arizona academy graduate who’s performed well with the reserves. We haven’t seen much of him this season (not on the pitch anyway) but maybe next year he’ll be the new, mysterious secret weapon. The truth is, there isn’t a single “striker x”. There have been strikers x, y, z and q. The depth of the team — in all departments — has been drool-worthy, but the energy of the young guys, who don’t get a lot of action but are still positive and ready to go, has really driven this team to be — in the RSL veterans’ own words — better than they were when they took the Cup in 2009.