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Talking Tactics: What is a successful season?

With one goal in five games, what has a late-season slide meant for RSL’s success?

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Another week another two points dropped as the Real Salt Lake skid continues. It is hard to imagine that a squad that had a 98 percent chance of making the post-season a mere four weeks ago is now only projected to have a 70 percent chance. No matter how you spin it, that is a huge drop-off.

In his Mutant Gene podcast, Alexi Lalas described what success is in the “artificial” terrain of Major League Soccer. He suggests that a club making into the playoffs would considered their season record a good one, but I do not necessarily agree. Take for instance the 27 scenarios that effect RSL for Decision Day. Sure 26 of them result in the Claret-and-Cobalt making the playoffs, but is narrowly slipping into the final spot by a slightly better goal differential really something that should be judged as success?

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

After the draw, that felt like a loss to many fans, against Sporting KC last Sunday, RSL head coach Jeff Cassar had this to say:

“[I’m] Frustrated with the final product, but I thought we put ourselves in a much more aggressive position tonight. We weren't as passive, and that was great, but we’ve got to find a way. It doesn't have to be beautiful, it's just find a way and I thought we created enough chances tonight to do that, but we'll keep working.”

For once it feels as if Cassar was channeling the RSL fan base, many of whom were visibly upset departing the stadium. Murmurs expressed disenchantment and anger all at the same time.

A lot of attention has been turned on the offense, but on the night there were much more productive than the year average. Both Joao Plata and Juan Manuel Martinez doubled their shots-on-target average on the night. Moreover, they also took more shots than their yearly averages. So what went wrong?

It was not so much that attack wasn’t creating chances, it was more they had to make do with bad chance creation.

“I mean, we talk a lot in our locker room and in not just in the attack, but just everywhere on the field is the choices that we make,” Cassar said after the match. “And listen, I love it when people pull the trigger; it loosens up the defense so there is something else available, but first we have to hit the net now and we’ve got to get something out of the good play that leads up to those plays,”

You might have just missed it, but at the end, Cassar said, “. . . we’ve got to get something out of the good play that leads up to those [shots],” and that is where the problem lies. RSL has not been working as a team rather knocking balls up to the forwards and leaving them isolated to take on one, two, or even sometimes three defenders by their lonesome. Burrito is good, but he cannot consistently be relied upon to take out the opponent’s defense for every play.

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

RSL started the season off with that killer mentality, but something has been lost. What it is specifically is hard to say, but the Claret-and-Cobalt are without it nonetheless.

In the last five matches, Real has only managed to score one lonely goal. It is crazy to consider after the way this team climbed the Western Conference standings and is now sitting on the edge of post-season elimination once more.

Last year’s missed opportunity led to a devastating season, lest we forget the 5-0 whooping at the hands of the LA Galaxy in the playoffs only a season before. Honestly it has been a couple of seasons of anguish, not one. While it is easy to just say the squad was not good enough because they didn’t win any of the final matches of the year, the hard part is to figure out why.

The dead horse of a failed head coach has been beaten relentlessly over the last month (by myself included), and it is hard to argue otherwise as morale lessens and players look less motivated, but I digress.

Instead there is this little factoid:

RSL has the longest winless streak of any team currently in a post-season seat. The club’s last win happened on August 26 when RSL handed the Colorado Rapids a 2-1 loss. That will be 59 days since their last win before they have a chance at redemption against the surging Seattle Sounders.

Fingers can be pointed and individual blamed, but this is merely a sideshow as everyone simply wants to see their club perform when it matters.

If RSL manages to pull out a victory against the heavily favored Sounders and end the 2016 regular season in fourth place in the West, it would be conceivable to consider this campaign a success. But, if RSL slips in in sixth place, that still leaves the Claret-and-Cobalt in the bottom half of the performers in the Western Conference - which is far from a successful season. Fifth place is a little more gray as the club will still be in the top half of the Western Conference, but is the worst of the best any better than best of the worst?

In short, for the ownership to think RSL had a successful season should be contingent on their final standing and not simply that they made it to the playoffs – it is just too easy with more than half of all the clubs in the league having that honor.