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Lost but not found: RSL’s Tactical Identity

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It feels as if RSL has trudging through the wastelands for 40 years: Can a change in tactics help them escape?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

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Real Salt Lake are not playing with the “Team is the Star” mentality because they are not a team right now. Large acquisitions in the off-season disguised it with big promises, but until the club recaptures the gallant character it has been known for, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s plight is going to continue.

How bad it gets before then is anyone’s guess as RSL continued their competitive win-less streak that stretches back to last September. Whether Jeff Cassar will be afforded the time to right the ship is another question few can confidently answer.

Presently, however, the mental fragility of this team is such that calls into question Cassar’s methods, which are clearly not working. When things go wrong, or the team is simply frustrated, RSL collapse.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

That happened against the Chicago Fire last Saturday, and once again Cassar sounded like a broken record.

“When you get the opportunity, you have to find a way to find the back of the net and tonight we didn’t do that,” Cassar told RSL commentator Brian Dunseth in the post match interview.

It is easy to blame the strikers for not producing, but it is much harder to acknowledge the tactics are not working. Many fans have called out the team for its heavy reliance on simply thumping the ball down field and hoping a forward gets to it before an opposition defender, and the stats support this. Since this win-less streak began, RSL has a increased usage of long-balls (up two percent) and a decreased pass accuracy (down two percent).

The increased use of this tactic is even more evident when the data is analyzed:

Looking at the graph, it is clear that there is an inverse relationship between the average length of passes and the squads’ overall pass completion rate - just as any elementary coach could tell you. A correlation coefficient of -0.93229 is present since Cassar was appointed head coach. In other words, for every percent increase in the number of long-balls attempted, the club’s passing completion drops by a corresponding percent (more or less) - roughly a 0.25 passing percent decrease per long-ball attempt.

Lobbing the ball forward is getting out of hand as the main tactical approach, match-in-and-match-out. The players have tried, you can feel it, but the attitude and desire are lacking. The two goals they conceded against the Chicago Fire was a misfortune, but moments such as that take the wind out of the squad’s sails and have been like the final nail in the coffin for the match in the minds of players, and RSL finds itself with big problems.

Cassar has too often referenced misfortune as the deciding factor of a lost game, notably when his team was beaten 3-1 by the LA Galaxy in the 2016 postseason, but excuses are getting old.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Watching this team crumble has been a horrible sight as the once MLS Cup contenders have become a mid-table fare within a matter of months.

As head coach, Cassar is culpable — just as those who make the decisions behind the scenes — for much of this and must take his share of the responsibility. While some blame does fall on the players, it was evident that the coaching staff lost the support of the locker-room last season, and has been unable to gain it back.

When Cassar took over in 2014, he inherited a club in a far different position to the one that Jason Kreis did a half a decade earlier. The Claret-and-Cobalt had an identity, but with vast, sweeping changes to the the club’s tactics, RSL has been in a state of flux for over three years now. During his three seasons at the helm, the organization suggested RSL was on the right track, but entering the fourth year it is clear that the club is unstable and the management has not been able to bring back the balance.

When a squad is regenerating, it requires constant attention. However, the Claret-and-Cobalt have continually opted to ignore the clear deficiencies in tactics and personnel.

Regardless of the issues with depth, RSL has forgotten the Team is the Star blueprint that gave them so much success. It was the beautiful game at its finest, as Real played miraculous passes into the back of opponents’ nets. It was one built around that spine of Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Nick Rimando.

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Other players were brought in to complement that, but the identity of RSL was very much that trio. Nevertheless, instead of bring in players that complement the spine and tactics of team, players are being played out of position and substitution patterns have become stale.

It is as if the organization has grown embarrassed by how they flourished, turning their back on the fundamentals of what made this club successful between 2008 and 2013. RSL’s acquisitions have focused too much on attempting to be something else than what the club actually is.

We have seen attackers signed en masse but consistently played players out of position, shifting away from the substance that has so often delivered. During the successful times, each RSL player had a position and knew what was required of him, now with the changes Real has lost their identity and the club is unrecognizable from the one we have known.

Give Cassar Real Madrid's players and play them out of position and even they would struggle to get results.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The personal desire and urgency that was present in Kreis’ brand of management is not there for Cassar. The key thing to consider, thought, is that without a strong locker-room, the product falls apart on the pitch.

RSL is lacking the mentality of a winning side that Kreis utilized in that fabled spell as head coach. At times of need, such as the one the club finds itself in now, leaders on the pitch would galvanize the squad to fightback, an aspect of the game which is now lacking.

The players under Kreis have all but been wiped out, that grit come with them. Instead, the Claret-and-Cobalt are left with a squad who are crumbling almost weekly at some perceived misfortune or injustice from the soccer gods that are no longer watching over them.

Cassar has not budged from his intending tactics, despite their observed inadequacies. The manager has stuck to his formation despite it not playing to the strengths of players such as Yura Movsisyan. Furthermore, his substitution rotations are utterly lacking as doing the same thing over-and-over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Cassar’s tactics have not worked and it’s not going to, either, unless RSL’s players can somehow shed their skins and gain new strengths in the process.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The sense of panic that engulfs RSL the moment an opponent scores is alarming. At Toyota Park on Saturday, it was felt from all four corners of the pitch and allowed the Fire to capitalize twice within five minutes. To their credit, however, RSL looked much better in the second half despite not being able to capitalize.

Because of the current state of how things are at Real Salt Lake, there are many more problems beside a group of players unsure how to win matches. The management’s rigid adherence to a tactical system that is not working is having players second-guessing themselves instead of reaching their potential. Nobody other than the players have shown any desire to take responsibility, showcasing an aloof, begrudging management style.

While Chicago enjoys the tactical re-branding that the MLS off-season afforded them, it is back to the drawing board for RSL who will continue their trudge through the same tactical swamp that has been sucking every ounce of inspiration from the players.

This may very well be a team of champions, but the tactical inexperience and inflexibility is what is failing them.

The Claret-and-Cobalt need a reminder how how they got through the tough times; they need to rekindle the spirit that defined them.

More than just points on the score sheet, right now, Real Salt Lake has lost their identity.

What do you think? Has RSL lost its identity? How can a change in tactics help them retrieve it? How long will Jeff Cassar remain head coach? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.