By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 12, 2014) US Soccer Players – Four MLS teams are moving on, their hopes of an MLS Cup championship in 2014 still alive. Allowing for the relative strength of the conferences, the clubs remaining are probably the four best teams in MLS.
That’s no slight to the eliminated teams from the conference semifinal round. All of them had exceptionally strong seasons. Included in that group is Real Salt Lake, last year’s Western Conference winners and MLS Cup runners-up. That RSL got as far as they did at all is something of a wonder, considering the changes they went through entering the season and the number of setbacks they faced during the campaign. That RSL got as far as they did augurs good things for the future of a club that has led the way in organizational success for the last seven seasons.
The change for 2014 started at the top, with the departure of Jason Kreis to NYCFC. RSL had options, and might very well have considered bringing in a coach from the outside who could inject immediately credibility into the vacuum left by Kreis. Instead, the club turned to assistant Jeff Cassar, a former MLS goalkeeper who knew the team, its players, and the club culture. The decision to choose continuity over name is perfectly RSL. That Cassar rewarded the club’s faith is only a surprise because it happened so quickly.
The transition from assistant to head coach is rarely easy. Relationships change when the man once thought of as a confident, especially when frustrations arise over coaching decisions, steps up the food chain and becomes the one in charge of those choices. Yet Cassar navigated it with aplomb. He deftly directed his side to a third-place finish and a playoff berth without so much as a negative word said about his leadership.
That likely says as much about Real Salt Lake’s institutional strength as it does about Cassar, but the two reflect one another. The club helped Cassar succeed by building a base from which he could work. Cassar helped the club succeed by properly utilizing the advantages provided by the club.
If RSL’s season was just a matter of plugging in a first eleven and competing, this much praise for Cassar would be beyond the pale. RSL dealt with enough personnel issues in 2014 that overcoming them was never a foregone conclusion. One mark of a good coach is that when the situation dictates turning to other players to carry the load, those players respond and prevents any sort of collapse. That’s because they’ve been prepared. It’s also because the coach puts them in a position to succeed.
A perfect example of that for RSL in 2014 came in the form of Alvaro Saborio’s long injury layoff and Joao Plata’s rise to lead figure in the team’s attack. Plata’s talent is obvious; what wasn’t clear was if the tiny Ecuadorian could carry the load as the lead attacking threat for a team with plenty of talent behind him. Plata not only met the challenge, he exceeded expectations. Plata’s 13 goals best all but one of Saborio’s seasons in Utah, and his six assists put him third on the team. Rather than fade from view because they lost their top striker, RSL maintained their position as one of the top teams in Western Conference. Plata’s development helped them do that.
Cassar also identified the abilities of Luke Mulholland, a midfielder signed from the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, and juggled a back line that saw several starters go down at various points in the year. He navigated a period that had RSL without the heart of their team, Kyle Beckerman, when the midfielder was away at the World Cup.
Through it all, RSL never suffered a losing streak longer than two games. Though they didn’t win enough to challenge for the top spot in the West by season’s end, they did well enough to finish with the fourth best point total in the League. For a club whose goal each and every year is an MLS Cup title, 2014 will be something of a disappointment. In a League where spending is becoming more and more of a factor in winning, and parity gives everyone a chance, the level RSL reached this season only adds to their already impressive reputation.
More than that, the season validated RSL as a club that wasn’t dependent on Jason Kreis to win. Cassar’s transition into Kreis’ job illustrates as much. Seven straight years in the playoffs speaks volumes, especially when that run spans so much change.
It will only get tougher from here. RSL now faces a question over the future of the team’s architect, Garth Lagerwey. Losing Kreis was a blow, but losing Lagerwey could shake the foundation of the franchise for years to come. If there is something inherent to the RSL way, something that can keep the team making playoff appearances despite turnover in the roster and on the sideline, it might the influence of Lagerwey. If he moves on, it will be up to the players left over from the original era and Cassar to keep the streak alive in the absence of the two men most responsible for setting the team on its laudable course.
All of this – RSL rise to a position of prominence within MLS despite occupying the smallest market in the league, the departure of Kreis but maintenance of a lofty standard, and the possible loss of Lagerwey – brings to mind questions of just what makes a team successful, especially in the odd world of Major League Soccer. Is it the key figures themselves who are crucial, or can the momentum established by them continue even in their absence?
RSL’s 2014 probably comes up short as a litmus test because of the continuity of the roster and the choice of Cassar. Perhaps 2015 will better fit the role if Lagerwey leaves for a new challenge.
None of what might happen takes away from this season. Once again, Real Salt Lake built. It’s celebrating, especially in such an unlikely home for a top American soccer club.
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