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Water Cooler Talk: Getting through the offseason

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It’s the offseason. How can we keep non-fans around us interested?

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake
Even your sharpest-dressed coworkers, like the man seen above, need an extra blast of excitement during the offseason.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The other day, I was talking to my brother in law about the Jazz. Since it’s the offseason, he and I have been hitting a few games (it’s his preferred sport) and I’m trying to come around to it. I don’t really remember the conversation, but I asked if he heard about RSL’s recent signing (Adam Henley). He hadn’t, but if a casual observer saw his reply, they might have thought that I asked him about politics or sex.

The level of discomfort present in his response to me was funny at first, and then depressing. I’ve been dealing with this for weeks in the office, and I think we all kind of deal with it at some point—people who need help understanding the offseason. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t have friends to talk soccer with, (I know you’re reading this, and I love you all) but it can be hard for non-fans. Understanding the MLS offseason is difficult. The SuperDraft doesn’t really produce quality players anymore, so it’s tough to understand how we sign key players, let alone who those key players are. Ever the optimist, I still grind out an explanation suitable for them to at least see why they can and should be as excited as I am.

*Fun note for anyone who works in my office and reads this, I will totally buy a ticket to our first home match to the first 3 people who come talk to me about this article. ;)

I start them out with the most brief and listener-friendly guide to our club and league. Real Salt Lake, for all of its bells and whistles and fans, just isn’t flashy enough for some players. That is a harsh fact, but it is one nonetheless. We will never be able to sign the likes of Sebastian Giovinvo, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore (compare them to three amazing players in their respective sport of interest) within a season or two. We can be mad about it, we can complain about how much the league journalists praise teams that do it, and we can surely give them hell when they come to the RioT, but we will never have them. We have to build our team up a different way.

This fact has been true for several seasons now. What has also been true though, and you can all disagree with me on this, we have not really been competitive for the last 3-4 seasons. We had moments of brilliance under Cassar and Petke, but we lost Kreis (explain that they were all head coaches at some point recently) at probably the worst time we could have. Those who have followed the league can likely point to shifts in which something big changed. We saw a shift with the introduction of Designated Players, which allowed teams to sign up to three big-name players that wouldn’t break the salary cap bank. We saw another with targeted allocation money, which also helped teams pay players without breaking the salary cap. But these were implemented league wide, so what is it that kept RSL from being as competitive as the LA team at the first of the decade, as lucky as the 2015 Timbers or 2016 Sounders, or as dominant at the 2017 Toronto FCs?

Coaching

MLS: Orlando City SC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In short, losing Kreis after 2013 happened. Despite the promise Cassar showed as head coach and despite all the faith the front office had in him, there was an obvious and unfortunate lack of confidence. We were careful that first offseason without Kreis, and it hurt us. Coming out with the same players and formation and ideas made sense, and even led to a playoff berth, but we were easily taken out. The following season, we tried out a new formation, but the damage was done. We didn’t make it into the playoffs, and the season after, we got dismantled early. The issue, an observer might declare, wasn’t necessarily in the fact that the coach was bad. It came from the fact that the switch happened at a time when the rest of the league was moving toward the next stage of MLS. By staying safe in light of a coaching change, RSL was ultimately left behind most of the league’s elite teams. Scrambling to get back into contention, we made several signings that looked great at first glance, but never really delivered.

Players

MLS: MLS Super Draft Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get too far, I should point out that I have loved almost every player to ever wear an RSL kit. But I know that I am probably alone in that, and that’s fine. Every fan has his/her own valid reason to dislike any player past or present. Signings have always been interesting. There were the ones that worked, Savarino, Silva, Silva, and Rusnák. And the ones that didn’t work out so well—Burrito, Jaime, Holness, and (I most certainly will catch some negative comments for this one) Allen. RSL has struggled in figuring out who to play when. In an attempt to not give Gil so much pressure, Kreis almost certainly stunted his growth as a player. Relying so much on Garcia and Olave in the past several years also kind of left many scratching our heads. Despite the small showings of brilliance these players had, the last few years saw us struggling with our “big player” signings and integrating our youth into the system. It doesn’t take much for someone to look across the league and see that some of the best teams excel in both, some of the competitive teams excel in one, and some of the least competitive teams struggle with both. We needed a change, and it had to be implemented into a system that worked to help bridge that gap.

2017 Season, 2018 Pre-Season

I’ve already talked about our signings that worked, but I’ll throw Petke in the mix too since I haven’t yet. Here it is… I honestly don’t think we would have been as competitive as we were late last season if Cassar was still in charge. I would also not be as excited for this season, signings and all, if we were still under Cassar. Petke is instrumental in making this work. We need him, and that cannot be stated enough.

Now that that’s been stated, this offseason has seen a lot of movement. We lost one of our most dependable players in Beltran (surgery). We lost the best hairstyle in the league in Beckerman (he still plays for us, we just lost the hair). And we’ve worked hard to bring in those replacements as well as reinforcements that fit our system. Our first priority seemed to be to bring back as many pieces as possible, making sure players like Lennon and Savarino stayed were huge. Making sure our captain stayed was even bigger. Our next move was to find players that would fill the gaps—enter Alfredo Ortuño and Adam Henley. Although Ortuño doesn’t solve the #9 situation we currently have, it showed a clear sign in the direction we’re heading. We need competition up top. We need consistency up top. We need a guy who can deliver the silver platter chances our attack is capable of producing, and Ortuño was key in making it all happen. Henley is a young stud with something to prove. Having played most of his career in Europe, he brings experience and a playing style that, while different, will bode well here. I won’t pretend to know the details of the deal, but his recent injuries likely made it so we didn’t break the bank signing him.

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

This all leaves us with the mix of youth and experience and a promise looking forward. Though Shawn Barry, Corey Baird, and Ricky Lopez-Espin don’t seem like signings that are on par with Dueñas, they do fill gaps in positions that will need reinforcements late in the season. RSL fans know more than anyone how prone our team can be to getting red cards, we know that we Can compete in the Open Cup, but sometimes aren’t able to make it far, and we know how long this season can be if a player like Glad or Savarino or Luke take time off for injuries, call-ups, etc. It’s a long season, and we need to pick pieces up where we can. These are our guys. They may not come in and start right away, but they will get a chance and hopefully work hard to prove themselves, and that’s all we can ask for at the end of a really successful off-season.

No, we didn’t go out and spend 15 million on one player. We will not have multiple articles dedicated to the signing of one player, and we can all feel however we feel about that. But. This has been one of the most exciting off-seasons in recent years, and I am ready to get started on the pre-season. I’ll see you all March 10th!

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports