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What questions remain for RSL? A look at the looming offseason

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With a core that mixes young and old, Real Salt Lake’s 2017 season will likely be one of growth and significant change. But what does RSL need to consider?

MLS: FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

MLS: FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Is it too early to start talking about the offseason? Yeah? Too bad. Someone asked me what three things I would change this offseason after I mentioned that a lot of change would happen after the playoffs. Kind of an interesting thought to have with 10 games left but it’s one that I have had all year, really.

I think so many of us forget that Real Salt Lake came into this season after our worst year in the last 5. After consistently competing for the Supporters Shield, MLS Cups, and US Open Cups (and one very painful Champions League) we fell from our place at the top of the mountain to a place where we could but look up at our rivals in disdain and jealousy.

At the end of last year there was a pretty lengthy list of questions that needed answers. Questions around players roles on the team, formation changes, tactics within the formation, ability of the coaches, veteran play vs youth development, injuries, and on and on. I have said this before and I will say it again; if you thought we would have a banner year in 2016 at the end of 2015 I would love to meet you and shake your hand as you are probably the most optimistic person around.

Most fans, if not every, looked at the offseason and realized that there were some substantial changes that needed to be made -- many even guessed that Jeff Cassar was on the outs and would be replaced. There were ‘all hands on deck’, ‘the ship is going down’, ‘the sky is falling’ type statements left and right.

Changes were made in the offseason and some acquisitions were made. I think going into this season there was a lot of hype with Yura returning and yet a lot of question marks still surrounded the defense and midfield.

Just as examples:

  • Jamison Olave had been sub-par all year in 2015
  • Chris Schuler was injured and injury prone
  • Luke Mulholland was not viewed as a starting 90 min caliber midfielder
  • Javi another year older
  • Where does Jordan Allen fit in?
  • What did Sunny bring to the team?
  • Will Yura be the goal scoring threat that we need him to be?
  • Who would our 1 and 2 centerbacks be?
  • Is Justen Glad a starter?
  • Is Aaron Maund a starter?
  • Is there a new center back coming in?

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve learned a bit about some of these. Answers have popped up around Aaron Maund and Justen Glad to degrees that I think most of us could have only hoped for 6 months ago. Jordan Allen has played wonderfully but still hasn’t found a spot that he can call his own. Sunny blew all of us away and we have felt his absence since he was injured. Luke, to my chagrin (*eats crow*) has stepped in and shown incredibly well through the last 10 games playing in place of Sunny. I mean, we just signed Schuler to a first team contract again and it looked like he might see time Sunday against Seattle.

However, questions still remain and though RSL currently sit in a good position looking playoff bound, 4th in the west and tied for 6th overall (with 1 point separating 6th from 4th), the streaky inconsistency this year has brought several concerns to near boiling point for most fans.

In my opinion after the disappointment that was last season and all the re-tooling so many of us expected, Real Salt Lake sit in a good place in what should be considered a rebuilding year. That said, the questions that remain are not only valid but are glaring at this point. I think that a lot of these questions can be summed up with three more broad areas of concern surrounding the team in 2016.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Goals against average

I bring this up as my number one concern for a lot of reasons. Break it down to it’s most basic essence and soccer is about consistently scoring more goals than your opponent.

(DRAMATIC OVERSIMPLIFICATION WARNING)

2016: 0 GAA 1.44

2015: -10 GAA 1.41

2014: +15 GAA 1.14

2013: +16 GAA 1.20

Over the past two seasons RSL has had a tendency to give up more goals than we are used to (average per game) making it more difficult for themselves than it needs to be to earn a result. This is where you might insert questions around the back line and whether or not we truly need to bring in a 1A starter quality center back. Clearly there is an argument for that but what I think we miss when we look at numbers like GAA is that it’s not just on the back 4. Defensive breakdowns happen starting at the front, continue in the midfield and defense, and end with the keeper. To assume that one investment/player will turn the tide here may be a little short sighted. This could be a mentality issue, it could be a tactical issue, it could be a personnel issue. Cassar and Co have a task ahead of them to sort this one out as going into the playoffs as leaky as we have been all year could spell an early end to any title hopes.

2. Weak starts

If there has been one thing that we have been very consistent about this season it is starting really slowly almost every single match. There’s a lot that could play into this from the list above. Is age a factor here? Is there some intrinsic or external motivation that is missing? How does a team get that “chip on their shoulder” back? I really wish that there was a simple answer for this one but it’s multi-layered and some real change is going to have to happen for ground to be made up here.

We have to, quickly, find a way to come out and be the aggressors without exposing ourselves to counter attacks and giving up cheap goals. We have to find an identity again that drives that aggression. Under Jason Kreis there was a very palpable, sometimes uncomfortable, force that motivated the team. Jason had a chip on his shoulder and that translated to the team. Jeff Cassar, for all the good that he brings, does not seem to have that same chip on his shoulder or that same need/want/desire to prove a point to doubters and critics. What if he did? Would that change how the team starts? Again, more questions than answers.

3. Cap room and loyalty

This might be my most controversial take here. MLS as an entity is interesting in so many ways. The most interesting (read: frustrating, vomit inducing, anxiety riddled, OH MY GOD I HATE THIS) piece is the salary cap and how teams weave their way through the maze that is the cap and the CBA. Ask anyone who knows anything about the salary cap to try and explain it to you and you will immediately feel an overwhelming sense that you’re talking to the Mad Hatter. TAM, GAM, Allocation, DPs, Young DPs, back room deals, expansion drafts and protected/unprotected players, ETC. It’s all B-A-N-A-N-A-S. The reason I bring this up is because after 2015 there were some tough decisions to be made surrounding the salary cap. We are overstretched. Traditionally RSL has been very “family” oriented. We believe, organizationally, that a balanced (relatively) roster is better than one that is top heavy. More players making good money is greater than a few making ridiculous money. It’s an ideal that we have espoused since the days of the “The Team is The Star” mantra. Well, that philosophy has put us in a position where we are hamstrung and unable to go out and spend to get the player(s) that we need. We need to find ask a lot of questions around loyalty and the impact that has/will have on the cap.

(Hey, breaking the fourth wall here...are you good? This is getting long. Thanks for sticking in there with all this.)

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Seattle Sounders FC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

So, you might be asking yourself at this point “where is this going? What’s the point?” Well, dear reader, the point of all of this is that someone asked me what 3 things I would do/change/hope to see in the offseason. I’ll try and keep this part pretty straightforward, but I think these also merit some exploration.

  1. A focus on youth development

I’ve written and talked about this so it should come as no real shock if you know me or read/listen to my stuff. It’s time we took a real look at how we are building this team and turned the focus to the youth we are developing in the academy, on Monarchs, and on the first team. Justen Glad is a shining example of what can happen when the stars align and we are forced to give a talented young player some real, tangible minutes in MLS play. He has excelled, even with the mistakes, at stepping into that role vacated by Schuler. Those were some really big shoes to fill and he’s taken it all in stride. There’s greatness there and I cannot wait to watch him grow over the coming years.

That said, players like Jordan Allen, Omar Holness, Phanuel Kavita, Boyd Okwuonu, Ricardo Velazco, and Andrew Brody also deserve real shots at minutes with the first team. Not to mention the players we have out on loan (Christian Herrerra and Bofo Saucedo) who could be impact players for RSL in time. These are all young, dynamic, hungry players that have something to prove in this league and in their careers. We need that drive. We need their speed and dynamic play. The hardest part about developing young players is playing them effectively and aggressively. By that I mean you shouldn’t put a player on the first team if you don’t intend to play them. Players in spots 19-20whatever will not play often enough to really develop. We’ve seen it time and again that when a player rides the pine they fall off and out of the squad. Cannot let that happen with the talented young players we have waiting in the wings.

2. Serious reallocation of funds

I guess this kind of has something to do with my first point. There is, however, a different tinge to this. When you look at how our salary cap is allocated this season there are, or should be, some real questions asked about whether or not this is the smartest way to spend our money.

I will admit that the landscape in MLS has changed as teams have figure out how to best leverage Designated Players for their particular needs. This has made it harder and harder for a team like Real Salt Lake to compete without going after a few players of a similar caliber. Yura (on a loan, but we’ll get there) and Burrito are good examples of smart allocation of funds and also players that fit our identity and contribute positively to the team. There are some serious questions around where else the cap is being spent and specifically around whether or not certain players are worth their particular cap hit. We’ve reached a point where we need to ask ourselves if Jamison Olave is really worth 300ish thousand a year. We need to ask if Olmes Garcia is worth 200ish thousand a year. Could that money be better spent elsewhere? There’s a real discussion that could be had around how much better this team could/would be if there was around a million dollars in cap room that became available in the offseason.

Here’s the catch: some of your favorite players are really expensive and we have been incredibly loyal to those players over time. You have to ask yourself as a fan whether paying Kyle, Nick, Javi, Olave, Wingert, or Beltran what they earn this year or more is the right thing to do. There’s a lot of layers to that. I cannot even fathom having to be in Craig or Jeff’s shoes when those decisions are made. They are hard decisions and even more so at this club. Is it time to move on from some of them? All of them? None of them? What I think is that we need to free up some money to make some big moves this offseason and I don’t know where that money comes from without letting some players move on — and yes, that kills me.

3. Solidified identity

This, to me, is almost the biggest thing. Goes back to what I said about Jason and the chip he had on his shoulder here. Man, that identity flowed from the locker room to every single seat at Rio Tinto. We all had that chip. We were diametrically opposed to how teams in MLS approached the game. We hated them and they hated us. We were out to prove a point to anyone that was paying attention. Our team was the best. Our soccer was the most refined. We played the game right and your grandma knew it. We tormented teams. 5-0 wins. 6-0 wins. Do you remember that? I do. Call it what you will, we were proud. Every single one of us. From the last player on the bench to the youngest fan, we knew who we were.

Can you say that now? Do you know who RSL is now?

I can’t answer that; not confidently. We are a family, but even that feels flimsy and almost outdated. You can sense this confusion and lack of identity amongst fans and players alike. We are disconnected. One of my favorite Jason Kreis-isms comes from a CCL game during the near-championship run (insert Daedalus reference here). He said, “We don’t want to weather the storm, we want to be the storm.” This has stuck with me since then and for a long time defined the club under JK.

Now, I want to take a step back and say that I don’t think that things were perfect under Kreis. Let’s be frank and say that we couldn’t finish what we started when he was here. 1 trophy with all the great opportunities we had is just not enough. Always so close, never quite there. He did do a lot that we seem to be missing now, however, or maybe that’s still just a ghost that refuses to leave the locker room.

The point I’m trying to make is that we need a driver. What motivates this team and us as fans? What are we all fighting for during the 90 minutes of play? A paycheck? Or is it something more? Is it pride or is it having a job? Are we all in for the club we love or are we in it for the results?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, I think I am out of breath.

I want to clarify, again, that when you look at last season as a comparison, we are trending in the right direction. It has been a roller coaster of a year full of inconsistency and frustration. That’s to be expected in a retooling/rebuilding year. It’s not easy to take an organization that was basically at a full stop back to the top in 1 year. The Western Conference is, yet again, an incredibly difficult place to play. (You have to wonder when that will stop or change and the East will make itself relevant again). RSL will get better, and then worse, and then better, and on and on. It’s gonna be a roller coaster.

The point of all of this is that there are some big opportunities right in front of us that we need to take advantage of or at least give a try. There is a lot of risk in that -- for the team, the players, and fans.

The payoff, however, could really be worth it.