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The Rise of Cassar: RSL coach showing new approach, mindset in 2016

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Is Jeff Cassar improving as a coach?

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Most of the buzz from the past week’s road win against rival Kansas City will surround Justen Glad, and rightly so. The young center back put in a poised and mature performance, going head to head with one of the league’s elite in Dom Dwyer and taking a big step on his developmental curve. However, I believe a larger step was taken Saturday night by another member of Real Salt Lake, one who is also young and still growing into his role. I’m talking about Jeff Cassar, RSL’s head coach.

Watch the game tape from Saturday and you can tell this aint yo momma’s RSL. This isn’t even your slightly older brother’s RSL. Against Sporting KC, we only held 32.7% possession. This is the second time this season (Portland) that we have had less than 40% possession, and not once in 2016 have we out possessed an opponent. And guess what? That’s OK.

Every coach has to decide two things when establishing a gameplan.

1. What space do we want to attack?

2. What space are we ok with conceding?

Saturday’s game perfectly demonstrated the answers that Cassar has chosen for those questions.

Let’s start with the second one. While the 4-4-2 diamond of Jason Kreis sacrificed the wide areas of the field to strengthen the center, Cassar’s 4-3-3 gives opponents their own half of the field. The defensive line is held semi high, but the wings and midfield stay fairly compact, rather than aggressively pressing. This makes the midfield extremely hard to play through, and explains the amount of offsides calls against Sporting. They had no choice but to play over the top against an RSL defense that packed bodies into the midfield third.

Obviously, in this example Sporting found a way through, but you can see the compression of the midfield and defense, and the number of RSL players behind the ball. It is telling that in Saturday's game, the strongest passing connection was between their centerbacks. The top 9 connections in the game involved at least one Kansas City defender. RSL dictated where the game was played, and kept Sporting from being dangerous.

Other times, when teams do try to pick their way through that midfield third it often ends in a turnover, which takes us back to the first question "what space do we want to attack?". In his rebuild of RSL, Cassar has chosen to build a team that attacks quickly in transition, ruthlessly countering off of turnovers. Gone are the gaudy possession stats, because they’re unnecessary when you have a three headed monster like Joao Plata, Yura Movsisan, and "Burrito" Martinez that can feast on the break.

This break looks much different than a "run real fast and cross a ball into the box" break that a club like Columbus will run. That’s because Plata and Martinez aren’t so much speedsters as they are creators. Because all of our front four (Plata, Movsisyan, Martinez, Morales) are so technically gifted, it gives them interchangeability. Mov can pull outside, Plata can cut in, Burrito can slalom through 3 defenders while drinking yerba mate, and Morales can pull strings and provide support wherever he is needed.

Having a fully healthy roster allows us to finally see and evaluate what Cassar brings to the table as a coach, and much of it seems to be predicated on an efficient counter attack. His first season, the team and tactics were still Kreis’, his second was marred by injuries and an inattentive center forward. This is our chance to evaluate Cassar. He has deviated slightly from Kreis’ "death by possession" toward a more pragmatic approach for a small market team, and so far it appears to be working.

The overall strategy is just one thing to look at when evaluating a head coach. Any head coach hired will have a vision for what he wants to accomplish, being able to adjust that vision to fit personnel is a hallmark of good coaches.

One good tweak Cassar made last year was inverting his midfield, flipping from a central, holding #6 with two advanced midfielders to a dual pivot with two holding mids behind one advanced playmaker. This is the opposite of the switch Caleb Porter made at the end of last season, and it has been beneficial for the team.

The change gives Kyle Beckerman a partner to help cover ground, and conserves the miles put on his aging legs. The backline is better protected and Beckerman can even push up into the attack, more than he has in a long time. It also leaves more space for the creative runs of our front four.

One area where Cassar critics might be on to something is his substitution patterns. Evaluating substitutions is a subjective endeavor, but it seems that Cassar regularly fails to make impactful substitutions.

Against Orlando City it was clear the defense was gassed, and Cassar made two substitutions of offensive players in Olmes Garcia and Mulholland (you could argue Mulholland as being a defensive sub; I disagree). I understand not wanting to sub a central defender at the end of a game, but does it help to have an exhausted Javier Morales in, attempting to shield that backline? Stertzer or Allen could've spelled Morales and helped protect a weary backline.

Other substitutions this season haven’t particularly overwhelmed or underwhelmed me, but that’s part of it. Cassar subs are just whelming. I don’t expect Garcia or Luke to come in, nutmeg two defenders, and turn Super Saiyan before roofing a game winner but at the same time…is it too much to ask for?

Jeff Cassar is learning and evolving as a head coach, just as his players on the field are. Much like Glad, Coach Cassar isn’t yet a finished product, but we are starting to see more and more the style of coach he is becoming. Is he one of the league greats? No. But he is improving as he goes, and someday could be. Coaching a full season his way, with his system and people will go a long way towards proving he belongs as the coach of this new version of Real Salt Lake.