Last year, when the "Fire Cassar" train was blowing full steam ahead, I emphasized a little patience. Not a lot, just a little. I had said that 2014 wasn't really Cassar's team. He was just taking over a ship that was already on course. The captain might not have been there, but the path was the same. RSL in 2014 was still Jason Kreis's team.
In 2015, we saw the beginnings of what RSL Redux could mean. (I hesitate to call it RSL 2.0, as if this is only the second iteration of RSL. I think anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the history of the club could tell you that's not true.) But a lot of what made the RSL reboot work fell onto the shoulders of a few specific players, and those players, it turned out, either didn't adapt well enough to the system or the culture or suffered injuries that persisted through the year. There was so much technical debt inherent in the existing RSL structure that the depth that had been the calling card of Kreis's diamond formation just wasn't there for the new system.
So patience, I said. Let's wait for this to play out. We can't judge the new system by one season that wasn't using it and another season hampered by not having all the pieces in place. Let's see where we are in the summer of 2016 and then hit the PANIC button.
We're five very impressive games into 2016, and I think we're starting to see what all the fuss was about. But what we've seen so far is not without worrisome signs, either. We've got a raw product on the field right now. There are holes to be plugged, there are problems to solve, but there's a lot going for us as well.
Whereas in the diamond, we had two attackers and a creative playmaker, the new system -- which could be called a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 depending on how you want to look at it -- really puts 4 players into the attack. One target forward (played by Yura Movsisyan or Devon Sandoval) to draw defenders and play with his back to the goal, and three creative playmakers pushing the wings and the center of the field. This spreads out the responsibilities of setting up the play, where it was once entirely dependent upon a single player -- Javier Morales. Not only that, all 4 of our starters in those positions -- Joao Plata, Juan Manuel Martinez, Yura and Javi -- can play in tight spaces with two or three defenders around them and dribble or pass their way out of trouble.
Something I've been noticing that hasn't been getting a lot of discussion is the fluidity of the formation. Between the midfielders and the strikers, there is a lot of movement happening. Luke Mulholland played high, almost like a second striker, against Colorado and Sporting KC. Left and right doesn't really matter in the midfield or attacking positions. Yura plays primarily in the center but occasionally will swing out wide. Burrito, Javi and Plata go pretty much wherever they want. Sunny Obayan and Kyle Beckerman primarily sit in front of the back line but teeter-totter into the attack. You even see Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert streaking across the middle of the pitch into the attack. This means the play can come from anywhere, and RSL has threats on all parts of the pitch (which is evidenced by the number of different players that have scored goals so far this season).
Playing the high line
It's always dangerous when you play a high defensive line. We've seen two games this season that should have been wins turn into draws by late game Hail Marys over the top and our back four. But since those hiccups against Orlando and Portland, we've seen that same high defensive line reap a lot of benefits. Besides drawing a ton of offsides (which we saw in the last two games against Sporting KC and the Colorado Rapids) it pressures the opposing side and keeps them compact in their side of the pitch. The long ball over the top happens because they are unable to pass their way through the middle without causing a turnover. And those turnovers are what RSL lives for in this new system.
In the 5 years I've been watching Real Salt Lake, we've never been what you would consider to be a "counterattacking" team. In Kreis's system, we might force a turnover, but then we'd hold the ball, be deliberate and methodical, try to find the killer pass that would lead to the goal, but not press the issue. The clock was always on our side with the diamond. The more we could keep possession, the more we could kill our opponents by preventing them from ever touching the ball.
So it's weird to think of RSL as a counterattacking team, now. But they are. With the high line comes forcing turnovers and getting the ball to the feet of one of our 4 attacking players as quickly as possible and waiting for the magic to happen. Maybe that magic is Burrito making defenders look like amateurs or maybe it's Luke firing from 20 yards out, or maybe it's Yura getting between the centerbacks. It's not that we've lost the search for the killer pass -- instead, we have multiple players whose brains work in hyperspeed and can see the pass early enough that we don't need to be deliberate. And if it's not there, we have players who are creative enough, and skilled enough on the ball to make something happen and get through the defense.
Depth (or lack thereof)
I'm kind of shocked that I'm actually typing these words but RSL's depth is terrible. I'm not saying we don't have good players on the bench -- we do. But in the new system, RSL has very specific roles and we don't have many different players who can fit into those roles. We saw last night that the entire game changed when Javier Morales came onto the pitch for Luke Mulholland. Suddenly, RSL looked more vibrant and alive and shortly thereafter, we sprung a counterattack that lead to a poor goalkeeping decision and a goal. Who takes Javi's place when he retires? Can Jordan Allen be that player that adds the spark to the attack? Do we hit the transfer market to find a bargain basement creative midfielder? Because what's a serious concern for me right now is our reliance upon Javier Morales for our attack given his age and the likelihood that he'll retire after this season.
Olmes Garcia is a good forward, but he doesn't excel on the wing. When I went down to watch the Desert Diamond Cup in Tucson in February, it was when Olmes came on for Yura Movsisyan to play as a center forward that he looked best, not when he played on the wing. This makes sense when you think about his playing style and what he's best at. He's big -- not muscular like Yura or Alvaro Saborio or Devon Sandoval, but tall, which makes him a good target in the box. He's fast, which works to get him down the flanks but he lacks the kind of creative flair that articulates Burrito and Plata's play in those positions. Anytime Olmes comes on as a substitute for those positions, creativity on that side of the field languishes. Behind Olmes is Emery Welshman...we won't talk about his preseason.
And then there's the lingering centerback situation. Aaron Maund played what looked to me like the best game I've ever seen him play against the Rapids, including an incredible, off-the-line save. There's no doubt that he's grown into being a starting centerback. But let's not forget that this happened out of necessity -- Schuler's lingering injury issues in 2015 forced the issue, and it was a shaky first few months. Justen Glad has looked extremely good in the two games he's started this year and notched his first professional goal in a hostile Kansas City. But he's also 19 and not as experienced as, say, Jamison Olave. But watching Olave looks to me like a player who no longer knows his body. Multiple times it's seemed like Jamison has gotten beat but, whereas Olave from 5 years ago would be able to chase down and cut off his mark, Olave from 2016 can't keep up and ends up throwing his body at the
player ball and getting called for a foul (or a yellow, or a red). In this way, Olave becomes a danger to himself and his team until he's able to read his own reactions better. Sure, Olave got cards before and his fouling isn't anything new; what is new is that he used to be able to keep up with the speediest forwards in the league and he can't do it anymore.
Playing the high line (revisited)
The first four games of 2016 for RSL across all competitions fell into a familiar pattern. RSL looks really good, then the opposing goalkeeper would loft a ball over the top to a speedy forward who would sneak between the two centerbacks and score a goal one-on-one with Nick Rimando. It happened frequently enough that I was yelling at the screen. "Why can't we defend against this?"
We've turned that around, mostly, but, as I said before, this is a danger of playing such a high back line. And that problem gets compounded by an unreliable, aging Olave, an inexperienced Justen Glad, and an Aaron Maund who's just recently settled into his starting boots -- with no clear leadership in the back (besides maybe Chris Wingert who doesn't play in the center).
Elephants in the living room
Let's get this out on the table. No matter what Javi says, I'm guessing this is going to be his last year. I wouldn't be surprised if Nick Rimando retires in the next couple years either, and Beckerman probably isn't far behind Nick. That's literally the core of the team. What happens when they are gone?
Jeff Attinella has proven that he's a more than capable replacement for Nick. No, Jeff isn't as good against PKs but few 'keepers are. No, he's not as good with his feet as Nick (again, few 'keepers are). He's not as athletic as Nick, but then, Nick has to make up for a much smaller frame which, I'm certain, is the reason why we see him throwing his body all over the place on a weekly basis. Jeff's not Nick, but he'll do, he'll do.
When Kyle leaves who takes over for him? Sunny has shown that he's capable in that role and, assuming we can make sure he sticks around for a couple of years, it's probable that he'd take over where Kyle left off. That leaves his vacancy which would probably be filled by either Mulholland or John Stertzer. Stertzer makes a good Ned Grabavoy -- he's not a flashy player that's going to get a lot of recognition, but he's a good box-to-box utilitarian player that can fill a need. Mulholland spent the better part of last year shadowing Kyle Beckerman as that second midfielder in front of the back four and I would say that, like Stertzer, while he's probably not going to win any awards, he can get the job done.
But what happens when Javi leaves (and it's not an if, people, it's a when)? Can Jordan Allen step into that role and wow us all? There's going to be a huge destabilization in the midfield when both Kyle and Javi leave -- those are two huge, irreplaceable cogs in this system and, as I've pointed out already, depth isn't our strong suit.
It's not all doom and gloom
There's a lot going on and this is a lot to digest. There aren't any clear answers and this is still only five games into the new season. Certainly the announcement of the new training facility and academy in Herriman will play a huge role into how our players are developed over time, but it's going to be several years before we start to reap the rewards of that investment. By then, we could be onto a whole new system with six defenders, three midfielders and a single forward. It could be RSL 5.0 and Nat Borchers is head coach (don't we wish?).
I don't know if Jeff Cassar is a good coach. But I know that tactically, this system has a lot of advantages. I know that Jeff does not convince me of his ability as a coach in press conferences, so I have to take what I see on the field. So far, this season, there's a lot to be tentatively optimistic about. In the meantime, it can't be said that Dell Loy Hansen, Craig Waibel or Jeff Cassar are outright bad at their jobs. Dell Loy just announced a $50 million complex that's breaking ground at the end of the month. Craig Waibel brought in one of the best creative players we've seen in Salt Lake since...well, since Javier Morales. As long as Joao Plata can keep making it rain goals and doesn't break his foot, I think we'll do just fine.