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Across the Pond: RSL having an identity crisis

How does a club with no owner and no manager work out who it is?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

(Originally this piece discussed the position of the GM. It has since been amended by the author to correctly reflect that the position of owner rather than general manager)

It’s often said that football is a global sport but with a universal language. Players from all corners of the world can come together and have an understanding of the beautiful game almost immediately, creating stunning interplay that entertains legions of fans.

Where things differ is behind the scenes.

One of the concepts becoming more and more prominent in modern football is the idea of a ‘club identity’, the plan set out that all staff, owners, sponsors and players are working towards achieving and the lens that hiring and firing is seen through as clubs look to align themselves with people who share those values.

The identity of a club is almost always defined by the ownership, as it’s their money being spent to keep the club going and so it largely influenced by their own values. You might be a club like Manchester City, who’s owner believes that investing significant funds into a business is the best way to succeed. You could be a club like Everton, who use the academy products they develop to fund player transfers, producing some of the best young footballers England has seen but never really befitting from them in the long term. Madrid have their Galácticos and Barcelona have gone from creating an academy of global superstars to the premier selling club in Europe. Whatever your team, your club identity has never been more obvious.

Which is where Real Salt Lake find themselves in a strange position. RSL needs an Owner, a coach and an identity. The values of the club are what attract an owner who feels the same, the owner generally hires a Manager they believe can achieve that club identity and the Manager is then judged on the values of the club.

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Or, in this case, The Owner, The Manager or the Club Identity? Well, RSL has always been a club with a pronounced identity, a culture of “The Team is the Star”.

Simply put, Real Salt Lake assembled a club of good but unassuming players who’s attitude and professionalism as well as teamwork and shared spirit made them and the team perform far better than the individual parts. It’s romantic, a silver screen plot come to life, creating the small market team that could and bringing MLS success to Utah for a long time. The departure of Jason Kreis, who for me was everything good in The Team is a Star, was the fist step in the loss or identity of RSL. Dell Loy Hansen, who exposed how that identity could be exploited by an owner unwilling to invest in the club and instead enjoy the plaudits of running a beloved MLS club without the hard work involved in keeping up with the league, was the last vestige of that culture and has been confirmed as being not involved in the search for a new coach at RSL. So the club identity is paper thin.

As for the Owner, it would be hard to get worse than Dell Loy Hansen. We’re a small market team with all the tools of a A tier club, a rabid fan base in the middle of nowhere, a big name fallen on hard times. We’re a walking contradiction of ideas and execution and any owner is going to have to cut through the rough to find that diamond.

Speaking of diamonds, finding a manager who is going to be able to bring the kind of success RSL enjoyed with that familiar diamond formation is going to be a challenge. We have young players who need confidence, experienced players who need to be utilised better and DP players who need to be built around to get the best out of them. The quality in MLS has jumped dramatically over the last few years while RSL has a lot of young talent, that talent it’s quite there yet. Any manager is going to have to be a master of many disciplines and finding somebody who fits that bill without knowing who is going to be bankrolling your squad building or what metrics you’re going to be judged on might put some coaches off.

I don’t envy the group who have to unpick this mess. Clearly RSL need to establish all three of these pillars as soon as possible and my preference would be to resolve the ownership issue first. That way the coach knows what the short and long term goals are and the squad can be built with that in mind. Bringing in a coach first means any owner that comes in may want to install their on coach and we start the whole process of squad building again with somebody new.

But there’s no easy answer to this conundrum. RSL is a team in crisis and a period of turbulence is ahead while the club undergoes a massive change and we can only hope the club comes out of this stronger and more comparative in the league. Everything is there for the club to be a main event player for years to come and so there is a lot to be positive about. With any luck, our new manager and owner will share the one core value the clubs fanbase is built on.