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Uncertainty punctuates the future for RSL Nation

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Where do we go from here?

MLS: D.C. United at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday afternoon, news broke that Juan Manuel Martinez, known to fans as “el Burrito”, was seeking a release from his contract for personal and family reasons. Later in the day, an official announcement was made that RSL and Burrito mutually agreed to part ways.

The general reaction from RSL Nation cannot be fully expressed into words, but it was basically along the lines of:

In point of fact, there are not enough crying gifs on the internet to fully encapsulate how we (most of us) feel about Burrito’s departure. This is, of course compounded by the fact that we’re also losing Javi, and many of us have speculated that the two things are not unrelated; Javier Morales has said in interviews that he tries to position himself as a sort of ambassador for new Spanish-speaking RSL signings to help ease their transition. It’s not a stretch to imagine a future where Javi’s kids are playing soccer with Burrito’s kids and the sudden loss of that potential future having an impact on Burrito’s family situation. That’s speculation, though, and the truth is we won’t know for sure if Javi leaving (and the inconsistency between his statements and the clubs’ statements about why he is leaving) had any influence whatsoever on Burrito’s departure.

I’ve seen a lot of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing on the InstaTwitterBookChatFace in the vein of “what do we do now????” Just how uncertain is the RSL fanbase right now? Let me put it to you this way, my season tickets, for two seats in a supporter section, for last year were in row N because that was as close as we could get. This year, I was able to bump up to D. That leads me to speculate that someone (or, likely, multiple someones) gave up their pretty-damn-awesome seats out of sheer frustration at the club. And this is a thing that we, the ones who remain to fill the stadium, or at least watch on TV as the slow-motion-car-crash unfolds, should be concerned about. Not for the folks who left, necessarily, but for the future of this team that we love.

If you’re considering cancelling your season tickets or giving up entirely on RSL, I’m not going to talk you off the cliff. Well, maybe a little bit. Far be it for me to pat Jeff Cassar on the back for a job well done; I still have a number of lingering doubts. But it’s not about who’s coaching, it’s about the team. And that’s why I’m here.

Dissent is Patriotic

Most of you are probably aware that we just had a major election in the United States. I mean, if you weren’t aware, even if you don’t live in the US, you’re probably living under a rock because even the Australians that I work with were giving lip about it. And just about every election cycle — but certainly this one — those of us who feel like we weren’t represented or some decision was made that doesn’t reflect our ideology and vision of the future in this country often say things like “I’m moving to Canada!” I don’t know if anyone actually does move to Canada. I do know that following the November 8 election, Canada’s immigration site went down and I doubt it’s a coincidence.

This is how I feel about those people whose seats I will be occupying in the 2017 season. And maybe they aren’t figuratively moving to Canada, e.g. supporting a different club or not following RSL at all this year, but their influence — or lack thereof — will have an impact. Similarly with the calls to boycott buying RSL swag that I’ve seen as a show of solidarity against the current management and front office.

Here’s the thing about moving to Canada, though: it solves precisely nothing. Maybe you are removing yourself from this environment, but you are not helping improve the state of things or this country that you live(d) in and presumably love (or at least have a fairly deep respect for). Dissent is a patriotic act. Voicing your opinion when you don’t agree with policies and politicians in office is right there, written in the Constitution and part of what makes this country great.

Similarly, throwing in the towel for RSL support is not going to improve things. Because that swag that you’re boycotting, the tickets that you aren’t buying is taking money out of the team’s coffers which ultimately lead to being able to sign players like Burrito, like pulling Yura back, like finding a new Javi or keeping Beckerman. Remember Chivas USA? That stadium was perpetually empty — except when the Galaxy played there — entire sections were just blocked off with Chivas-branded covers because what else are you going to do? They were never able to gather the support they needed to persist. Sure, that might have come down to a market approach that didn’t work out, but the point is, eventually, it didn’t make sense for them to be a team anymore. They weren’t making money, they had some decent players (mostly due to an ownership group that was able to pull in significant capital from the parent club, Chivas Guadalajara) but when an ownership can’t find significant value in their investment in a club, they leave. That’s how business works. And if the team can’t bring in enough revenue from selling branded gear, and ticket sales, and food and attractions at the game, I’m no business guy, but I have to assume that’s going to have an impact on the overall numbers and who we’re able to sign or not. Say what you will about Del Loy Hansen, but he has put significant dollars into this team with no guarantee of a return on his investment. There are clubs that aren’t able to pay their players who’d love to have an owner like that.

My point is, boycotting doesn’t solve the problem. What does (possibly) solve the problem? Dissent. Making your voice heard. No, a professional soccer team is not a democracy. Jeff Cassar doesn’t need to answer to our desires. He doesn’t even need to give us reasons for any of his decisions. The team doesn’t need to be totally transparent about how they work. It would be nice, sure, and it is nice when they are transparent, but there’s nothing saying that’s how it has to be. But still, if we care about this team, and this club, and enjoy watching our colors on the field, we can voice our dissent. And that’s okay. It doesn’t make us bad fans. It makes us good fans. Because we care enough about the club to have an opinion and to voice that opinion. And, yes, I am going to acknowledge that there is a problem. I have deep concerns. I’m getting to that.

Let’s talk about some problems

So what are some of my concerns?

Jeff Cassar hasn’t proven that he can lead this team to success. And we just renewed his contract.

There, I said it. Here’s the thing, and I’ve said it for a long time: after Jason Kreis left for NYCFC, the club stayed stagnant. We kept the same formation and most of the same team. And that was okay. It wasn’t great, but it was carried by the greatness that was established when Kreis was still here.

Then Jeff finally decided to put his two cents in. Change things up. This was a good thing because no team will ever be great if it’s just following in the footsteps of someone else. And there were momentary flashes of brilliance. But they were — and have been — fleeting. And I have been waiting, since Cassar took the position, for a moment when I feel like, yes, Jeff gets it. He understands what we need for a successful future. I haven’t felt it. Not once since he became head coach have I felt like Cassar knows what needs to happen to reclaim the success that Jason Kreis left behind.

I don’t shout Cassar’s name at team introductions at games. Am I a bad person? At first it was because he was unproven. I didn’t want to blindly shout my support for someone who hasn’t been tested. Jeff’s been tested, but he still hasn’t been proven. Three years later, we’re still grasping for something and coming up short.

We’re losing good players. And we’re going to lose more.

Javier Morales leaving was a blow, but it was a blow that I, at least, was prepared for. Given his obvious decline last season (and, let’s face it, it was pretty obvious), I didn’t think he’d be around this season. What I didn’t expect was the apparent nastiness between him and the club and the discrepancy about whether he should play another year. I thought he’d retire quietly and maybe come back as a coach this season. Or I’d hoped, at any rate.

Jamison Olave is another player that, eh, we can live without. Acquiring him from the Red Bulls was a band aid to a Borchers-sized hole that didn’t quite fit. Given his salary requirements and the dominance that Maund showed last year, he was also a very expensive bench warmer.

Other players we won’t be seeing next year, I’m not overly concerned about. And maybe as the month goes on, some of the players whose option we declined will re-sign.

And then there’s Burrito.

Crying. In the rain.

Burrito showed us what the 4-3-3 could look like. He seemed perfectly suited to our team makeup — which is very family-oriented — and the style we wanted to play. He played off of Plata and Javi well, and the interchange between the three of them, when it worked, was nothing short of beautiful. Losing him is one thing. Losing him and Javi, with no obvious heir apparent is concerning.

The focus of the last couple years has been on the attack -- we had all of these fantastic forwards, so it was said, that we’re going to spread out the midfield and put more attackers on the field. For a time, our defense was left wide open, having to compensate for fewer midfielders helping defend, but that’s a problem I feel like, ultimately, we fixed — RSL inverted the triangle in the midfield to pair Beckerman up with Sunny or Mulholland or whoever was available, and the wingers started doing a better job of tracking back to defend. Olmes Garcia showed marked improvements in this department (if only he could put the ball in net on the other side of the field sometimes).

But now it seems as our attack is stripped. Javi was a big part of that attack, even when he was underperforming in 2016. Burrito was likewise. Those are two pieces that need replacements. Will this be the season that Jordan Allen steps up and assumes a starting role as a winger? I don’t know. But I do know that we’re lacking creativity and vision if all we’ve got left is Joao Plata.

To add insult to injury, we’ve got an expansion draft coming, and a theory going around is that Nick Rimando may not be protected. I could see that, honestly. It’s another big number on the payroll and he’s not getting any younger. Plus, Attinella has proved that he can take that number 1 spot. But still. Losing Nick would be a blow. And if he isn’t on the protected list, you can guarantee he’ll be picked up.

Every team needs stars. And it’s only becoming more prominent.

Yesterday I saw an article float by in my Twitter feed that the MLS now has more highly-paid players than Italy’s Serie A. So much for being the underdog in international soccer, amirite? It went on to say that this is seen to speak more about the decline in Italy’s premiere soccer league than anything about the MLS, but also the article was in the UK Guardian and they might be a little bit biased on that particular point.

The fact is that if you look at the two teams in the MLS Cup this year, you see a ton of heavy hitters. Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Giovinco, Clint Dempsey (though he’s injured and won’t play), Jordan Morris — the highest paid homegrown signing, Nelson Valdez. If you widen the scope to the teams that advanced in the playoffs, you’ll see more of the same: Piatti and Drogba, Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard.

That’s not even considering teams like NYCFC and LA Galaxy that seemingly print money and make up rules that allow them to sign seventeen DPs.

I love “the team is the star”. It’s one of the reasons I feel so closely tied to RSL. I quit professional sports in a rage in sometime between junior high and high school after the MLB strike. I was one of those who felt like “why are these guys, who play a game for a living and make millions of dollars, complaining about money?” I feel closely connected to the underdogs and offended by teams that flagrantly throw money around. But the fact is that flagrantly throwing money around has been a recipe for success for all the teams that made it to the final four in the MLS Cup Playoffs. And RSL? Who do we have? Beckerman made himself known after the World Cup but is still, largely, a blue-collar player. With no Javi, no Burrito and possibly no Nick, that leaves Yura and Plata — neither of whom are on the same level as David Villa or Robbie Keane, at least on the international level.

Let’s talk about some solutions

The obvious answer here is that we’ve got some cap space, some DP slots and some international roster slots open with these departures. So, if anything, the light at the end of the tunnel is in acquiring new players to assume these roles. So far, Craig Waibel has been really freaking good at finding players who are a good fit. Does it take time? Sure it does. Are we left vulnerable while we’re waiting? You bet we are. But I’ve yet to be disappointed by Waibel’s ability to find and sign (or re-sign) players who are the right fit for RSL.

Being the right fit is more than “can they play well”. There are a lot of factors at play, not the least of which is a fairly limited budget. So finding the right player to fit with the team also involves a personality and culture fit. I’m fairly comfortable with the team’s current approach to recruiting new signings.

Don’t panic

The time has come and gone for hitting the panic button. That doesn’t make me less of a fan, though. That doesn’t make me not want to watch the team, and cheer, and scream until I’m hoarse for a week. I’m not in charge of the decision to keep players, to keep coaches, so I can only sit and write really long think pieces that fester in my head for months before I can put the words down.

What keeps me going is the belief in the team and in the players on the field. That’s why I watch. That’s what brings me to the games. Whatever drama is happening off the field, that’s just noise. The point is the product on the field. It’s called “the beautiful game” for a reason. There were times, this season, where, admittedly, RSL did not play beautifully. But still I watch. And still I cheer. And still I yell at referees or wonder if Jeff is going to make that third substitution. The spirit that “the team is the star”, while it may not be the direction of the league, is still present at RSL even when we are seeking out players who are asking, potentially, for larger sums of money. I still have faith in the team, and I’ll still watch if we lose every game in 2017 because I support our team and I support our players.

But I’ll still hope that we win a few.