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Talking Tactics: The technical parameters of the Cassar era

Cassar has the potential of becoming synonymous with tactical stumbles after his time at the club came to an end.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It was in the waning days of last summer that produced one of the most iconic moments of Real Salt Lake’s 2016 campaign. A brace from Yura Movsisyan launched RSL into third place in the Supporters’ Shield race and won the Rocky Mountain Cup for the hosts. It appeared as this would be the catalyst to finish the season strong, with only seven matches to go.

Nearly seven months later, the star Armenian striker provided another goal on Saturday, but it was not enough to quash the current 0-7-4 win-less streak and save head coach Jeff Cassar’s job.

It seems like yesterday that RSL were thrashing the Columbus Crew 4-0 on their way to the MLS Cup final – but that was 2013 and the last time RSL has won a match by more than three goals.

Placing blame on nearly everything else, Saturday’s 2-1 home defeat to the LA Galaxy that capped off a 0-7-4 run finally caught up with Cassar and led to his dismissal.

This is only the second time in club history that a competitive win-less streak has surpassed seven matches. The first being the 0-11-1 run of form to finish off RSL’s inaugural season, extending to 0-16-2 during the start of their sophomore season.

As a result, some might suggest that the organization under Cassar contrived to accept excusing, rather than expect results. As promises mounted amidst a deficient of match points, time was against the former head coach.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Cassar’s tenure as head coach was about evolving the organization from a perennial post-season attendee to one of the Western Conference’s elite. But the former goalkeeper over-promised and under-delivered resulting in a 38-37-30 record. As a result, the Claret-and-Cobalt went from MLS Cup contenders to sitting at the bottom of the league table – leaving many fans disheartened and looking for answers.

Having fired Cassar on Monday, it was a move the organization simply had to make. While he plotted to implement an offensive, high-tempo style of play, his execution of tactics consistently contradicted his vision.

The former RSL boss had criticized his own players for a lack of resolve, but then absolved himself of blame for leaning on ugly, underdog tactics. In fact, for all of the talk of high-pressing soccer, Cassar largely snubbed work ethic, speed and athleticism for technical ability and unfulfilled promises.

The reality is, that a squad with all the elements to succeed will be judged on their performance – which, to be clear, are meaning points on the board – and not simply their aptitude to perform.

There has undoubtedly been success in the Cassar era. The club cruised through the start of last season, looking like one of the most dangerous team in the West by mid summer. But for as much success that has been experienced during Cassar’s tenure, just as much, if not more, shortcoming have manifested.

Since the club’s bad run of form started last September, the Claret-and-Cobalt have conceded 16 goals and scored only seven - in other words, they are conceding 2.29 goals per goal scored. Without doubt, that is not a attribute of a championship squad which lead to Cassar’s tactical discipline to be questioned.

One of his most glaring tactical deficiencies was his ability to make meaningful modifications to tactics during a match.

Often very well-organized teams for some reason or another seem unable to keep up their coordination for the entire 90 minutes, but RSL found itself losing cohesion, rigor, and even concentration more regularly.

Several times a match RSL lengthens out during certain offensive and defensive schemes, but these moments can be punished in a game that has become much pacier in recent times. These lapses in judgment were punished against the LA Galaxy when they exploited open space in the midfield, left to accommodate an offensive-mindset.

The best coaches prepare a number of solutions in advance to apply is the match is not in their favor, but, for the final time, Cassar used a similar substitution pattern.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Waiting past the 60 minute mark again, Cassar made his first substitution of the match - pulling out the only spark they have had all match long, Movsisyan, and replacing him with Chad Barrett.

While Barrett did have an opportunity or two to build on the host’s lead, the former coach’s insistence on playing a certain style of soccer did not leave room for proper game management.

Instead of focusing on retracting a winger and reverting to a more defensive, traditional style after the red card to Kyle Beckerman, Cassar kept only one player in the central midfield pivot, opening up space through the heart of the formation.

All along, Cassar handcuffed his squad with perplexing decisions, none more so than his failure to adjust for the club’s almost consistent lack of midfield build up play. The buildup play was so scanty against the Galaxy that the Claret-and-Cobalt only managed to lose three shot, even before the red card was shown.

In the most successful three man midfields, the ‘director’ will be the center midfielder placed in front of the central defenders, while the attacking midfield will have the freedom to roam. In a perfect scenario, the interplay between the director, the attacking midfielder, and another player (be it a winger or the second member of the double pivot) would resemble a triangle. However, Cassar was never able to have his squad master this. relying on long-balls and through-balls to create the majority of attacking moves.

Defenders of Cassar routinely suggest that poor results were the result of simply a bad run of luck; “Things not going the club’s way.” When responding to criticisms of the management they would insinuate that it was just a lot of people talking who don’t understand soccer or the squad - often failing to acknowledge a sophisticated, educated RSL fan base who are very passionate about their soccer club.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The scale of technical decline under Cassar was as puzzling as it was spectacular. Despite having world class quality at his disposal, not to mention the scores of youth talent, Cassar was never able to get them to perform to their potential as the squad collapsed with a total lack of cohesion.

At a time when the Houston Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes are surging, it was only a matter of time before Cassar was let go.

Soccer really is a funny old game, but it is just not that funny for Cassar at the moment. He has been the unfortunate punchline for some of Major League Soccer’s biggest commentators and smallest fans, but his tactical ability, or lack there of, resulted in one of the worst steaks in RSL history.

It was the growth of the American soccer community and tactical understanding of the game that fueled the call for Cassar’s sacking. With a one year extension, Cassar’s continued leadership at the helm represented a stopgap of sorts, but between an infusion of fresh perspective that comes with a new coach and the goalless drought, RSL desperately needed to move on from the Cassar era.

The organization knows that there is a great challenge ahead, but it seems to believe that the squad is comprised of good players that can ultimately make the club successful. Fans and players alike should be excited about the opportunity ahead, but there is still a lot of work to do to right this ship.