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Continuing the Conversation; Lost but not found: RSL’s Tactical Identity

We received such an influx of comments on the latest Talking Tactics article, we thought we would continue the conversation.

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

Readers of this blog know that we almost constantly solicit feedback in the forms of comments. For readers, it is a way to add their two cents and try to demystify things a bit. The comments are usually addressed to ideas in the article and, at RSL Soapbox, we want you to know that the comments are not somehow disregarded by a faceless higher authority but actually reach the writers and editors.

We hear you.

So to facilitate a larger conversation that is taking place in the comments of Lost but not found: RSL’s Tactical Identity, I thought I would answer some of your commentary here.

Crodilicus wrote:

Look, I am not the biggest fan of Cassar either. But, both of the goals really were flukes. RSL created a lot more chances than Chicago in the game. Yes, that final pass or shot was severely lacking. However, it is early with a lot of new pieces and injuries. I love many of the new pieces and the team just needs some time. Rusnak is a star in the making. I am really excited about Allen, Lennon, Holness, Bofo and other young guys.

So I don’t disagree that Cassar needs to go. But, let’s not freak out over ONE game where RSL created the vast majority of the chances on the road and just got some bad breaks. Other than a new coach, I am not ready to burn it to the ground and rebuild. This team still has as much peak talent as most of the teams in this league.

First, we can agree that the deflected chance scored off the leg of David Horst was a fluke:

Simply impossible to save for Nick Rimando who read Arturo Alvarez’s shot direction but when the ball deflects off of Horst’s leg, there is nothing he could do.

The breakaway goal from Nemanja Nikolic, is a completely different story, however.

Any coach will tell you play until the whistle is blown, and that is exactly what RSL did not do. Instead of immediately trying to close ground on Nikolic, the entire RSL back-line, and Sunny, all look towards the linesman and raise their hands in an attempt to elicit an off-sides call.

Too often this is seen, despite commentators and coaches alike emphasizing that players must play until the whistle is blown. They did not, and they got punished.

Second, the injury argument is getting old. All professional sports teams deal with injuries, it is part of the game. Relying on these excuses is not helping anyone; the players, the fans, the organization, the league, nor the sport.

Targeted Allocation Money, $1.2 million in fact, was given to each team this year to increase squad depth. It is always easy to blame injuries with squad depth is lacking, but so many clubs have improved with this injection of capital, let’s not hold the Claret-and-Cobalt to another standard.

Real has had an equal opportunity to use this injection to add squad depth, so they should be evaluated accordingly.

marfmor wrote:

I am upset about the path this club has taken since the illustrious Cassar took over. It’s not the formation, it’s that this team lost its identity. A team can change its formation and still retain its identity. I really want the distinguished Mr Cassar to go before I can return to Rio Tinto. The fans deserve more respect. The problem is also that at least from my view, Don Hansen has very little idea of the game, hence he doesn’t see the need to get rid of Cassar. He might be a great business Don, but that doesn’t mean he knows much about soccer itself. It shocked me when I found out a RSL game back in 2008 was the first professional soccer game Hansen ever attended? And now he is the owner??!!!! I am only in my mid thirties and I assure you I have been to more professional soccer games probably more than Don Hansen will be the rest of his life.

I feel that you share your feelings with many RSL fans in regards to Jeff Cassar, but I also hope you gave him a chance or two at the beginning to see how his vision would play out.

Cassar has not necessarily been all bad, lets remember. He did help forge the awesomeness that is the Wall of the Wasatch while he was the Goalkeeping Coach under Jason Kreis. He has his moments but doing the same thing again and again is mind boggling.

Personally, I am not an expert in Dell Loy’s soccer background at all, other than him first being a minority stakeholder with the club before buying Dave Checketts out.

However, I would disagree with you in regards to Hansen’s influence on this organization. He has built infrastructure at a never before seen rate for the organization.

Not only has he forked out money to acquire Designated Players, but he has also installed one of the largest screens in the league, installed solar panels to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint and bring down the monthly bills, invested in what could easily become the premier academy in the league, and much more.

Dell Loy is a sound businessman, and while he might not know all the fundamentals of the game, he has his general manager and other personnel to aid him there.

Hansen, at least in my eyes, has been a great addition to the organization and whether or not he is directly responsible for extending Cassar’s contract into 2017, he deserves a lot of credit for building a strong foundation - which will pay dividends in the future; it is almost ensured.

1OldDude and I have been involved on a thread in the previous comments so I will do my best to emulate that throughout this response.

Jason Kreis has been a particular point of interest:

Every time I read Kreis' name in a post, it reminds me of an old drunk guy at the bar bemoaning the loss of his first wife 25 years ago and he has been married 3 times since then. It is pathetic, let’s just retire his jersey and move on(sarcasm intended). I don’t have anything against Kreis but he is the past and as some Disney character said put your past behind you. Pining over Kreis is not going too make RSL a better team but getting a new coach would be a step in the right direction. Cassar has spent the last 3 plus years demonstrating that he cannot coach the final third so look to the future and find someone that can.

He went on to say:

Cassar is not a good coach and you don’t need to drop Kreis’ name in every article to convince me of that. Each coach must stand on their own merit and currently our coach is failing. Five year ago I cared what Kreis did but I now I don’t care what he did 5 years ago. RSL has done things differently in the past and has been successful but your article implies that Kreis was the identity of RSL and I don’t think that is true. That identity was created by a bunch of players that were middle of the pack guys that came together and put forth extraordinary effort. That hard work in the right environment allowed them to develop into something special. Kreis was a good coach but he would not have been as affective without KB being the bull dog that he is, Nick marshaling the defense, or Javi leading the attack. The fact that we had a lot of players that were completely unproductive for RSL that went on to have solid careers would support that Kreis was not the magic bullet. The identity that we missed was not created by a single person but by a group of guys, including Kreis, that worked hard together and that hard working attitude became part of their identity.

Ok, so just to make sure that I was not name dropping Kreis as much as he implied I went back and reviewed my past articles.

The last time I reference Kreis was at the beginning of February in the article This Is the Place: Dave Checketts’ indelible mark on Utah soccer. As sort of a history lesson of the club, I believe that the first player signed by RSL should be acknowledged.

In fact the last time I even alluded to Jason Kreis’ influence on the club was back on October 6 of last year (2016) in the article Opinion: Are injury woes the real culprit behind RSL’s inconsistency?.

While I do not mention him specifically, I invite readers to consider if a locker-room meltdown, such as the one that was implied last year would have happened under Jason Kreis.

Therefore, I find this criticism lacking a factual foundation.

In between the two aforementioned articles, I wrote several articles that evaluated Cassar on his own merits, including Talking Tactics: What is a successful season?.

So while you may be more using the comparison as a hyperbole of the larger Real Salt Lake fan base, I do think comparing the evolution of the club and the head coaches that lead them is a viable evaluation technique; in my own opinion of course.

On another note, 1OldDude continued with a suggestion that RSL has an identity:

As for Identity, RSL has one. They just need to dig it out of the closet and dust it off. They have been known as a gritty, never say die team that always has performed beyond their payroll. A team that demonstrates consistency throughout the squad and season. Someone that MAKES you sit up and notice them because of what they have done not because of who they are.

Ok, so they have an identity, but it is being stored in a closet? Doesn’t that mean they lost it? Or at least that it is not being used?

As the Talking Tactics article said: “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.”

In fact, we do agree that the grit is gone.

On consistency, however, we might see a little differently.

Under Cassar, the Claret-and-Cobalt have performed consistently. So consistently that substitution patterns and offensive tactics have become predictable. The once MLS Cup contenders have become a consistent mid-table fare, straddling the red-line - sometimes they make the play offs, other times they just miss it by a hair.

And I have to ask the question, when is the last time RSL has made you sit up and notice them because of what they have done, and not because of who they are?

I don’t think all the publicity that the club received after that late season slide from second in the West to sixth is the kind of notice you were implying.

Skipping over an entire conversion on tactics vs formation vs identity, that could go on until the end of time, 1OldDude finished off with:

The bottom line: there is a lot that we agree on and the most important thing is that it is time for a new coach.

In which we agree.

I hate to say it honestly but for as many times as I defended Cassar and said give him a chance to build his vision, these three years in flux have been like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Promises are great, but words are wind. When it comes down to it the product on the pitch will speak for itself, and that product has not been good enough for many fans.

Those in charge of the Real Salt Lake organization have always relied on the natural abundance of team spirit and grit.

Recently, however, the club has grown complacent in the belief that regardless of the tactical system’s inefficiencies, the job of stocking the squad will talent will get done through the sheer weight of player turnover, while the club authorities can concentrate on marketing and sponsorship deals.

Therefore, is it any wonder that after a half-decade long dynasty, RSL no longer has a tactical identity, comparable to other franchises in the league?

There is no longer any sense of what a Real Salt Lake player is supposed to be, beyond the principle Route One soccer which is rarely emphasized in practice - used as merely a last resort.

Last Saturday, the Claret-and-Cobalt squad proved unequal to the task but it has been impossible not to feel pity towards the organization as it has been shamed by its own fan-base. It would be wrong to call these professional the victims of a failing system, but their failure is a symptom of a wider malaise, not simply the cause.

I would love to hear your point of view, so share it in the comments section below.