Following Sunday's loss in Seattle, capping an unsatisfying season for Real Salt Lake, Jeff Cassar had these words of wisdom on what needs to happen to make sure next season doesn't end with the same result:
I think that’s a discussion for the staff and with [General Manager] Craig [Waibel]. Just looking to get better. On the staff – how can we get better? And how can our team get better and be prepared for a Champions League game come February?
Call me cynical, but really? I mean, really?
Your team just had arguably the worst season in seven years and the best you can come up with -- the answer to all the lingering doubts of all the fans and media and critics who have been wondering if this is truly the end of RSL's long dynasty is...get better?
Obviously Real Salt Lake needs to get better. How is that going to be done? That's your job, that's what the question was asking, that's what we need to know. How? Because we've known for a while now that RSL needs to "get better".
Hearing that after a disappointing game (to put it mildly) did not fill me with an overabundance of hope for the future on Sunday night. Reading it in print the next day on RSL.com only made it sound worse. I know it's early, I know we need to evaluate performances and make tough decisions and all of that. And I get not tipping your hand to the press or the public, but surely you can give us more than that. Unless you don't actually have a hand to tip...
A Brief Recap of Cassar's Legacy
Let's back this train up a bit before we get too far ahead of ourselves. Let's take a look at how we came to be where we are today -- watching as spectators as 12 out of 20 teams compete in the MLS playoffs. (Think about that for a second. 60% of teams are in the playoffs. We aren't one of them.)
2013 was a great year for RSL. As the final third of the season approached, RSL was battling for a US Open Cup trophy, the Supporters' Shield and the MLS Cup. Many of us thought they could manage all three. But maybe there was trouble brewing and we just didn't want to see it. In the middle of the season, Jason Kreis (In Kreis We Trust) took a secret trip to Manchester, England for reasons that would not become clear until later. Instead of taking home the US Open Cup, at the RioT, RSL fell to the worst team in MLS -- a team that failed to win just one regular season game away from home -- DC United. It should have been an easy victory, but DC had nothing else to play for. As Jason would have said, "they just wanted it more."
That was okay, though, because we were still in it for the Supporters' Shield. Except that we fell short on that by 3 points, the Shield going to this year's Supporters' Shield winner, the New York Red Bulls. At this point, some of us began to take pause. Maybe RSL isn't a team that does well when the odds are in our favor. After all, it was a team that had an unimpressive record of 11-12-7 that ultimately took home the MLS Cup in 2009. Maybe we need that chip on our shoulder to motivate us.
It was a question we were left wondering after the 2013 MLS Cup Final when RSL fell to Sporting KC in a grueling penalty kick shootout.
2013 was also the year RSL acquired a speedy Colombian striker named Olmes Garcia, who ended up notching five goals that season. He was an exciting player to watch not only because he was so fast, but he was young -- the type of player Jason wanted to coach and mold, having been a striker himself. Devon Sandoval was acquired through the SuperDraft in 2013, too, and it was thought that those two players could prove to be important parts of the future of RSL with Jason to guide them and help develop them.
We might never know what could have happened if he had that opportunity because before the wound of losing the MLS Cup could heal, Jason announced that he was leaving for NYCFC.
When Jason left, it was like being punched repeatedly in the gut. Truth is, it was hard to blame him. A chance to meet and learn from one of the great soccer organizations in England, build a new team from scratch with essentially all the money in the world to play with? Who could argue with that?
I don't consider 2014 to be Jeff Cassar's first year as a coach. Because I don't believe he really did anything as a coach in 2014. The message in 2014 was "let's keep doing what we've been doing and everything will be fine." Nevermind the fact that Jeff Cassar is hardly Jason Kreis. Nevermind the fact that some of the pieces that made the 2013 team would be missing.
To me, what propelled RSL through 2014 was the players. The diamond was on autopilot. But without a seasoned captain to steer the ship, Real ended shy of repeating 2013's success. Through a quirky combination of new qualification rules in CONCACAF for the Champions League and end-of-season results voodoo (best regular season record among teams not already qualified through other means), RSL managed to gain a berth into the CONCACAF Champions League but were obliterated in Los Angeles five goals to none to end their playoff run virtually before it began.
And then Jason gutted us.
Through a combination of waived contracts and the expansion draft, Jason Kreis ended up with five former RSL players -- Ned Grabavoy, Chris Wingert, Sebastian Velasquez, Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Josh Saunders. While Saunders would never have been a starter under Nick Rimando, and Kwame and Seba weren't regular starters, the three of them could have played significant roles in a 2015 season for RSL with injuries and national team call-ups. Not to mention losing two veteran starters.
2015 Was Jeff Cassar's Actual First Season as a Coach
You can't coach a team by just doing what you've been doing under the last coach. That's not a recipe for success. Best case scenario, you end like RSL did -- a decent season, but nothing with the kind of spark that could have been there had we still had Jason Kreis. Because you'll never be able to step into the shoes of the guy who had the spot before you. The only way you can have a chance at being successful and leaving your own legacy is by following your own path, making your own choices. I never thought sticking with the diamond was the right solution in 2014. It worked...sort of...but it wasn't going to get us where we needed to go. The diamond was Jason's thing. Jeff needed to find his own thing.
In 2015, RSL introduced a new formation, based largely around the forward surplus and the dynamic play of Joao Plata who led the team in 2014 with 13 goals and rounded that off with 6 assists. He proved that he could be just as much of a playmaker as Javier Morales, and so the 4-3-3 was introduced, surely as a way to allow him more creative freedom to combine with other players and drive the ball into the back of the net. Again, our plans were foiled when, on the first day of pre-season training, he broke his foot. Now we have this 4-3-3 that's at least partially based around one player...without that one player. That wouldn't be the only significant injury we had to deal with, but it is the one that had the most effect on what I believe the game plan was going into the season.
I held out until the end with the "chip on our shoulder" theory -- that it didn't matter if we had a rocky season as long as we could squeak into the playoffs somehow. We could maybe reprise 2009. That never happened. Looking back, maybe it was a lot of wishful thinking.
Some of us have observed that Jeff...isn't the best at press conferences (that actually might be a tad generous). While Jason would be brutally honest in post-game press conferences, often fiery after a particularly disappointing result, Jeff will often give superficial answers, dodge the question, or paint a positive light on circumstances. And that's fine, I suppose. Maybe it's just a different style. Obviously Jason's tough love didn't yield huge amounts of success in his debut season in New York.
But somewhere along the way, whether it's at training or in the locker room, that positive spin needs to be dropped. You need to look at the facts from an objective standpoint. I believe that Jason could do that. I believe that he was able to see the bigger picture and I believe he was (and is) able to motivate his team. I could hear it when he spoke -- he speaks with passion. I've never heard Jeff be passionate about anything and I've never felt inspired by him. And that's a problem.
I don't like to think that any of us know more than MLS coaches. We can't possibly. We're here and they're there, and they've got the experience we don't have. But I know that there are people that are mind-blowingly brilliant and there are people who are pretty average. There are amazing leaders and speakers and there's everyone else. And it's been my hunch for a while that, while Jason may be on the mind-blowingly brilliant side, Jeff's maybe more on the pretty average side. And if Jeff is just kind of average intelligence or leadership ability, I have a a few troubling questions about the future.
What's the Plan B to the 4-3-3?
There were a couple occasions, when the need or the whim arose, that Jason tried formations other than the 4-4-2 diamond, with mixed results. If you look at other coaches around the league -- even Jurgen Klinsmann with the US Men's National Team -- many of them will change things up. Bruce Arena will switch from one formation to another, sometimes within the same game. Yet we've seen Jeff Cassar, with very few exceptions, stick steadfastly to the 4-3-3. That's fine if the reason was to reinforce familiarity with the formation, but what if it's really just not working? What if we don't have the players for the formation or what if a different formation would work better with our current player pool? My fear is that the 4-3-3 was Jeff's Bright Idea and there isn't another one. There are no other ideas. That's the one. My fear is that other coaches -- the great coaches that win titles -- have creativity that Jeff just...lacks.
At what point do we call this a failed experiment?
At a certain point, you have to call a spade a spade. Like I said, I don't count 2014's success toward Jeff. I count that to the players and their determination to continue on despite Jason Kreis' departure. I consider 2015 to be Jeff's first real season. And I don't think you can judge a coach, or a new formation, on a single season, especially after having spent so many years doing something else. But eventually, eventually you need to call it.
I think if RSL makes it to the summer transfer window in 2016 without marked improvements in their performance -- if their season is looking next year the way it did this year -- it's time to hit the PANIC button. Because the same reasons many critics are questioning whether Jurgen Klinsmann should be coaching the USMNT are the same things should be thinking about Jeff Cassar: a coach's job is to win games. If they fail to do that, they are not doing their job.
My biggest fear with Jeff as our coach is that he lacks the qualities of what I would consider to be really great coaches in MLS like Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmidt, Peter Vermes, Dom Kinnear, Oscar Pareja and, yes, Jason Kreis. Jeff was -- and is -- the easy solution to Jason leaving. He's already here and he's cheaper than hiring someone else. But soccer is brutal and coaches with better records have been fired for less. Just look at New York -- we're only a win and a tie ahead of NYCFC and yet possibly one of the best American coaches might be looking for a new home for 2016.
It's one thing to say "we need to get better" and then follow that up with some examples of how or where or what needs to be worked on. But making your thesis statement for the future of the organization "get better" creates more questions than answers.