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Cassar at Sabis: Critiquing RSL's head coach after two years at the helm

Julius Caesar was met with a decisive obstacle at the Battle of the Sabis that shaped the rest of his life and the future of the Roman Republic. Like his namesake before him, RSL head coach Jeff Cassar is entering a similar career altering situation going into his third year as a head after what some consider the worst season since early RSL history. Can he turn the tide of the battle, or will this be the end of Cassar?

Photo Illustration
Photo Illustration
Photo by Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In 58 BCE, Julius Caesar marched on Celtic Gaul, modern day France. Heavily out-numbered, his legions faced daunting obstacles in order to find victory. Jeff Cassar, like his namesake, is facing much bigger opponents – in this case, opponents with much deeper pockets – and finds himself in the midst of much debate from the patrons.

Reminiscent of the Battle of the Sabis, Cassar currently finds himself between a rock and a hard place. In this battle, Caesar’s legions were given a serious blow early in the battle after losing all of their standards – important to the morale of the troops – and most of their commanding officers. In that sense the last few years have been much similar for Real Salt Lake – losing and missing out on all silverware is similar to losing the Roman standards and the loss of leaders like Jason Kreis and Nat Borchers have rocked the club to its very core.

So now Cassar, like Caesar, stands at the precipice of a make-it-or-break-it moment. Can Cassar rally the troops and turn the battle in his favor or has the death blow already been struck?

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Much like the X (Tenth) Legion, RSL is known for its heavily reliance on veterans. While this makes the core strong, it also means that the squad is susceptible to the revenges of time. The battle tested veterans know the league and the stakes, but youthful exuberance can also be responsible for turning the tide.

Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Nick Rimando have held the line for the Claret-and-Cobalt for many years now. Their veteran know-how and ability to read the game has paid off time and time again. But, as the saying goes, they are not getting any younger. Just as the X legion stood strong in the face of near devastation, RSL has remained one of the premier clubs in the league.

In the same way that it took the prompt arrival of reinforcements to turn the battle of Sabis in Roman favor, reinforcements are needed in the RSL camp. One critique of Cassar and his staff is that they have been rather weak on this front. Favoring short-term relief for long-term problems, such as the trade for Luis Silva instead of young attacker to be developed by the club, Cassar and Co. have failed to bring in players that are committed to the club.

The turnover on the Wasatch Front has been massive the last couple of seasons – when compared to the Real of recent history. With players leaving for greener pastures, head coach Cassar has done little to develop talent and instead has had to let them go.

Take for instance the situation of Carlos Salcedo. A top quality candidate from the Casa Grande academy, Salcedo forced his transfer after he felt as he was not given the opportunities he was promised. Now at Chivas Guadalajara, Salcedo is a main-stay in defense. Sure the club is not known for their excellent shutout record of late but Salcedo has demonstrated what potential can be achieved through proper player management. In similar fashion, Luis Gil also recently left the Claret-and-Cobalt for Mexico.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Real Salt Lake Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The resulting trend is a disturbing one if Gil too becomes a standout player. This is because it will demonstrate that the current coaching staff at RSL are not properly managing young player development. If that is the case, the potential of losing Jordan Allen and Justen Glad is almost inevitable.

Advocates of Cassar, however, can argue that he is much better at managing young players than Kreis and statistically speaking they would be right. Under the Kreis regime, prospects such as Enzo Martinez and Benji Lopez disappeared into the reserves and off the club roster. In which case Cassar has done a much better job retaining talent – but who is to say that the Real Monarchs formation has not had an effect either? In either case, RSL mantra of "the Team is the Star" has faltered under the influence of veteran bias amongst the coaching staff.

For RSL to remain competitive in the league, more has to be done not only to develop young talent but to maintain it. Instilling youth with commitment to the Claret-and-Cobalt is a must if Real is to avoid becoming the elephant graveyard of the league. Just as the Roman auxiliary youth certainly influenced the Battle of the Sabis, so too must RSL become a willing and accepting recipient of reinforcements.

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Adhering to what some can consider to be ancient traditions, RSL only recent changed its formation to a more modern 4-3-3. Moving away from the highly successful diamond formation was criticized even by the skipper Kyle Beckerman. The Romans too underwent changes under Caesar that were first heavily criticized and resulted in losses, but after some tinkering created a stronger more determined force.

In Cassar’s new 4-3-3 formation, both KB5 and the maestro have to cover more ground with one less midfield-shuttler. While their veteran savvy can accomplish many things, it cannot allow them to be everywhere at once. Playing with an "inverted V" provides more defense but can leave defensive gaps that the midfield-partnership – mostly occupied by Beckerman and Luke Mulholland – interpret as the other man’s job. This was more common in the first half of the 2015 season as it got ironed out towards the fall run-up. Still, this can be common obstacle in this style of the 4-3-3.

MLS: CONCACAF Champions League-Santa Tecla FC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The MLS Cup winning Portland Timbers ran into this problem as well but Caleb Porter’s switch to a holding 4-3-3 (with a regular "V" shaped midfield) showed promise in their home-streak. The single holding midfielder opened up more opportunities for more attackers to take the field and the creative juices began to flow. Moving Darlington Nagbe into his more preferred central position alongside Diego Valeri paid huge dividends for the Timbers.

On a related note, Porter also learned an important lesson about playing players out-of-position – something of another disparagement of Cassar’s game plan. Wanting to play a new formation so bad, Cassar apparently did not take a proper accounting of the players on the roster. Early on, Cassar put Gil into a traditional box-to-box midfield role. Away from his more traditional attacking role and burdened with additional defensive duties, the young attacker struggled and was eventually replaced by the more natural No. 8, Luke Mulholland. Just as Nagbe had not been as dangerous on the flanks, Gil’s overall performances suffered. But unlike Porter, however, Cassar held firm to his formation not allowing much flexibility and thus resulting in the loss of a talented youngster.

Getting back to the topic at hand though, Cassar needs to tinker with the game plan in order for RSL to excel. At the Battle of the Sabis the Romans were surprised at the Celtic attack as they were still setting up camp on the banks of the Selle River. Out of formation, the Romans suffered heavy losses until Caesar reorganized the soldiers and lead the troops from the front. So too must Cassar lead through example and change the way he does "battle". Being flexible allowed Portland to capture their first MLS Cup, therefore, RSL could take a page out of Porter’s book and use more the plethora of options the 4-3-3 formation and its variants allow for.

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The general flow of soccer is vastly different than many sports out there. As a result it is difficult for managers, if not impossible for them to affect the outcome of the match. With no timeouts and almost no stoppages, the critical in-game decision that can be made is when to utilize the three allotted substitutions. Much like battle field maneuvers, the strategy of substitutions are greatly dependent on the timing performed. Yes, the diagrams on the clipboards of the manager and the general personnel on the field are the main components in getting a result, but Dr. Bret Myers, a professor of management and operations at Villanova School of Business, has discovered what he deems the "Decision Rule".

Dr. Bret Myers presenting his work at a Sports Analystics Conference.

This rule is described by Dr. Myers as the moments in the match that are most susceptible to the influence of substitutions. The analysis factors in elements such as fatigue to determine the precise moments in which subs can alter the match substantially. He concluded that the first substitution should be made prior to the 58th minute, the second prior to the 73rd minute, and the last just before the 79th minute. He suggests that teams that follow this model will have roughly a 17.5 percent greater chance of scoring a goal than teams that do not. He notes that there are at least 1,037 instances that his "Decision Rule" could have altered the outcome of matches. (Follow this link to his complete article)

By this logic, Cassar has got it his substitutions schedule all wrong. The name Cassar has become almost synonymous with stoppage time substitutions to merely whittle down minutes and not affect the larger outcome of the match. He is notorious for not managing time properly and seeing it as an enemy more than a friend.

Conversely, Cassar did use a similar model during the second Santa Tecla match to much avail. After going down a goal 15 minutes into the second half, head coach Cassar meticulously substituted players at precisely the right moments. The result was a 2-1 win for the Claret-and-Cobalt that all but sealed their entry into the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Julius Caesar, too relied on timing to turn the Battle of the Sabis in his favor. The ordering of attack and defense formations for his remaining columns, the precise time to rout the Artebates and Viromandui – leaving only the Nervii – and the precise arrival of reinforcements in order to assure Roman victory in Belgium. Much like his namesake, Cassar must also learn the importance of timing. In his defense, he did not have a good role model in Kreis, who always had what seemed like a set schedule to his substitutions. No, what Cassar needs to do is learn when the time to make the perfect substitution is, which will come in time for the new, young head coach. In the mean-time avoiding stoppage time subs and implementing Dr. Myers’ model could prove to be decisive in securing a post-season slot next season.

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Once a bastion of consistency, Real Salt Lake’s historical playoff streak is dead. After seven years of post-season appearances and five consecutive years of 50-plus point seasons, RSL fell hard from the top of the Western Conference. The role of Cassar in this is up to debate but a few things are certain.

One, Cassar was in his second year as a head coach. While he was a long tenured lead goalkeeping coach for the club, jumping into the lead role is a drastic change. Moreover, Cassar completely revamped RSL and its formation which always leads to road-bumps, especially after such a long successful run.

For all the fans calling for blood, it has to be said that this year hasn’t been easy for anyone on RSL – especially Jeff Cassar. Quoted throughout the season saying things like: "[We] came up just a little bit short," and "Without a doubt, it's a missed opportunity." (May 6 and June 7, respectively). The year didn’t turn out the way he wanted it either.

On the other hand, however, Cassar has been the victim of his very own gaffes. Improper player and time management has been his Achilles heel. These have not only been evident on the pitch but also in team chemistry. In many opinions, the glue that held this squad together is evaporating because of poor decision making.

To quote a friend of mine, "Cassar, just like [Ty] Corbin, is a good man and a good assistant coach. But the role of head coach is too much for him, and it shows on nearly every level."

Just as Julius Caesar knew just when to call a charge or form a defensive wall, the more subtle aspects of indirect tactics seem lost on Cassar. He frequently appears to be a "Big Picture" kind of guy but fails to properly address the minute aspects of the game. But this is about more than just the "Big Picture" for many players as they are misused and simply not given the chance to perform. As the team breaks apart into an assorted jig-saw puzzle, the mantra of the team will have to be changed to "Players fit together as pieces in a puzzle or cogs in a wheel".

– – –

Cassar has just entered the pivotal moment in the battle in which Caesar's brilliance finally shown. Hard-pressed and with their backs against the wall, the Romans gradually joined together and fought back to back. This, coupled with the entry of reinforcements, transformed the dire situation of the Romans. Real Salt Lake must stabilize in order to begin to turn the battle in their favor. The club, as well as the head coach, must now fully commit to changes or face the consequences.

With the Cassar's own Battle of the Sabis well into its duration , the coach will have only moments to right the ship or go down with the wreckage. Will Cassar, like Caesar before him, be able to pull a miraculous victory out of his hat? Can Cassar put all the pundits' mouths to rest? Can he finally become the head coach RSL needs? Will 2015 be Cassar's Battle of the Sabis or just a nameless defeat?

Only time will tell but the clock is ticking: tick, tock, tick, tock, tick . . . and history waits on no one.