(by James Edwards desnews.com 11-7-11)
In the wake of Real Salt Lake 's playoff ouster at Los Angeles on Sunday, it's human nature to play the what if game. Would things have been different had a healthy Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers been paired together instead of just a hobbled Olave? Perhaps, but there's evidence to suggest otherwise.
During a season in which injuries certainly plagued RSL, inconsistent defending down the stretch was a bigger problem.
A year after setting an MLS regular season record with 20 goals against, RSL conceded 36 in 2011. What's disconcerting for Real Salt Lake's coaching staff heading into the offseason is the time frame of those 36 goals.
Through the first 18 games this year, RSL was one of the better teams in the league with a 9-3-6 record and only 12 goals against. Over the last 16 games, however, RSL conceded 24 goals, finishing with a 6-8-2 record.
Borchers, who was forced to watch the final game of the season from the bench with a quadriceps strain, said the mistakes made against the Galaxy weren't anything new.
"We made some mistakes against L.A., especially in the second half. They're a good team, they're going to capitalize on those mistakes, and we haven't been as sharp defensively this year as we've been in the past. There's definitely a lot of room for improvement on that end," said Borchers.
Including the playoffs, RSL's record in the last nine games this season was 1-6-2. The final scores of those six losses was 4-1, 3-0, 2-1, 3-0, 2-0 and 3-1.
It's easy to blame the last two playoffs losses on the absence of Bor-Lave, but RSL's center back duo started the previous six matches and the team's record was only 1-3-2.
Did playing a club-record 45 games this season catch up with RSL's older defenders over the final few months?
You can't pin all of RSL's defensive troubles on the backline, because coach Jason Kreis talks constantly about the importance of defending with all 11 players, but the reality is three of RSL's primary five defenders are already 30.
Robbie Russell turned 32 this summer while Olave and Borchers turned 30 back in April. Chris Wingert will join the 30 club next summer. Tony Beltran is the young pup of the group at 24.
RSL's backline missed a lot of games because of injuries this year, including Sunday's Western Conference final. Considering the age of RSL's defensive core, that trend could get worse, not better. Olave, a 2011 MLS Defender of the Year finalist, only played in 24 of 34 regular season games this year compared to 27 of 30 last year. With his chronic knee troubles, who's to say that productivity doesn't go down again?
Borchers was also named an MLS Defender of the Year finalist on Monday, and even though he missed Sunday's match with the Galaxy, he's proven to be much more durable than Olave over the past four years.
One of the positives to come out of the season from a defensive standpoint is Chris Schuler. Because of the assorted injuries and suspensions RSL dealt with, the second-year defender played in 20 regular season games and all three playoff games.
Most agree that Vancouver and Portland both made a mistake not plucking Schuler in last year's MLS expansion draft. If RSL leaves him unprotected for Montreal's expansion draft in two weeks, it's unlikely Montreal will make the same mistake.
RSL's core group of 30-somethings still have several good years left in their legs, but they might not be able to play as frequently in the coming years. It's a big reason why the development of Schuler is a positive sign moving forward for RSL.