When tonight’s match started, I was planning on writing my usual Winners & Losers column, which I’ve really enjoyed writing week-in, week-out.
But when snow started dumping on the match, I realized I just wouldn’t have much to say. See, players can do good things in the snow, and they can do bad things in the snow, but in the end, it’s a very weird match all around. So it is that I wound up here, writing the latest edition of The Salt, because I do think the match is worth talking about, but I think talking about it in the broader context of 2020 bears some exploration.
Reasons and Excuses
I know it’s in vogue right now to ask about Freddy Juarez’s job stability, and I do think it’s worth talking about — we’ll get there. But before, I’d like to talk a little about some of the things he’s discussed in recent weeks, and some of my thoughts on how we ended up here.
First up is RSL’s lack of a true striker. Juarez, in a rare bit of speaking out about internal matters, talked about how Real Salt Lake hasn’t had a true striker for several years. He’s obviously not wrong, and we certainly can point to the reason for that as Dell Loy Hansen and his lack of investment in the club’s playing personnel.
Second is RSL’s poor run of luck, which coincided with a poor run of form. I do think there’s something to this, but it’s not about the luck — I think every team, at one point or another, will go through a bit of bad luck. The important thing is how you recover out of that, and I don’t think RSL did. They let heads drop, and the timing for this — essentially coming not long after all the dirt about Dell Loy Hansen went public — can’t have helped focus. When Justin Meram was interviewed at halftime, he gave a deep, beleaguered sigh. It spoke volumes.
Third, a consistent talking point in RSL spheres is refereeing, as is the case in basically every fanbase. I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time here.
Fourth, and this can’t be underscored enough, is COVID-19. Real Salt Lake’s roster — barring the lack of a true forward — might have been good enough for a normal season. Our young roster might have had more opportunity to train. David Ochoa might have been able to move back and forth between Real Salt Lake and Real Monarchs seamlessly. Every team went through this disaster of a year, but teams are built differently. Teams with a core that’s not either very young or on the verge of retirement will certainly have been better-equipped to deal with the crunch of matches. But RSL was not, and it is not something we could really have planned for. (Let this be a reminder to you: Listen to health officials and scientists. Wear a mask. Socially distance yourselves from people outside your circle.)
Counterfactuals are rarely helpful, so I don’t want to explore what might have been, had COVID-19 not been our reality. Simply put, it has been. We can castigate Freddy Juarez and Elliot Fall for not building a team that could adapt to a rapidly changing landscape — one with three distinct phases, long months without soccer, and more — or we can acknowledge that this was a trying time. That is not an excuse, of course.
But if any of you thought a second-year first-division coach and a brand new GM, operating on a budget that would generously be called shoestring, with an owner who meddled in transfer decisions, and a furloughed staff — including the club’s only scout — would be properly prepared for this year, then I’d urge you to think again, because frankly, it was an ask that was far beyond anyone’s reach.
Should Freddy Juarez remain in his role?
Let’s start this conversation off with a hearty refrain: He’s not going anywhere without a new owner. That sort of thing would be ridiculous unless he was out of contract, and we know he’s not. (However, we do know that the assistant coaching staff will be out of contract, so that’s fun. There’s got to be a lot of uncertainty there for them personally, and for the club.)
My answer to this question is not a helpful one: It depends.
See, I’m in the camp that thinks that Freddy Juarez could be a good coach. Yes, he hasn’t dealt ideally with everything thrown his way, but let us first acknowledge that some of what has been thrown his way is massive and hard to cope with. If he hasn’t dealt ideally with that, it is fair to say that there are few coaches that could. (If you want to argue about what he dealt with, make sure you read above and get my thoughts on how a roster that’s been hobbled by ownership does not mix well with COVID-19.)
Ultimately, this, for me, comes down to what our new ownership wants. If they’re looking to win immediately, splash the cash on a few signings, and make immediate waves, I do not think Juarez is the right man for that job.
If a new coach is, instead, looking to build something a bit more from the ground up, to sign better players but not eye-catching ones, I think Juarez is a reasonable option. Would he be the best option? Maybe not.
It will be important to prioritize. There will be many hires that will need to take place.
We have been left in the dark for some time on a number of things, and it is a little exhausting thinking about all of them. Let’s talk about a few of those.
- Is Andy Carroll, chief business officer, officially gone from Real Salt Lake? We have heard nothing on the record.
- What about Craig Harrington, Utah Royals coach? Is he still “suspended,” or is he gone from the club?
- Has more been uncovered from the MLS investigation?
I don’t actually want to deep dive on these, but it is disconcerting knowing that our club had such utter rot, and that we have no idea whether it’s being scrubbed, if it will be scrubbed, or if they’re done pending new ownership.
A sports team is nothing without a community around it — especially for a sport that lags behind at least five or six others for attention on a national scale. It is difficult to feel that community strongly in a circumstance like this. This team and community is small enough that many of us know somebody who works in the organization. They might have been furloughed. They might have been treated poorly. They might have been laid off. When that is the case, and when we know good people at the club are overworked, underpaid, and unable to effect change, it becomes difficult to feel great about the future.
I’d like to feel good about Real Salt Lake’s future again.