Changes under Cassar are taking hold for Real Salt Lake

By Ridge Mahoney
Real Salt Lake prides itself on continuity, yet for the past two seasons it has flourished despite significant change.

RSL reached the 2013 MLS Cup final despite a preseason shakeup during which it shipped off three veterans and original operator-investor Dave Checketts sold the team to former minority partner Dell Loy Hansen. A day after falling to Sporting Kansas City on penalty kicks, head coach Jason Kreis confirmed he was leaving the organization to set up shop with the New York City FC expansion franchise. The status of general manager Garth Lagerwey is unclear; his contract expires at the end of the year and recently Hansen announced that discussions of a new deal have been tabled until the end of the season.

For RSL, the end result is always first priority. A return to MLS Cup would require running a gauntlet of tough Western Conference opponents, no matter how the final standings shake out. Seattle is buzzing along atop the overall standings, the Galaxy is launching a typical late-season surge, and a new coach has transformed FC Dallas into yet another formidable foe.

The changes under former assistant coach Jeff Cassar has been less dramatic and certainly nothing like the moves in the winter of 2012 that sent Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave to New York and Will Johnson to Portland. But with a few tweaks here and there, and the return to health of some important players, RSL is gathering momentum under the new guy in charge.

“He’s been around for a while now so he knows this team very well, what we’re good at, and the system, so we didn’t miss a beat,” says veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who arrived at RSL in 2007, the same year Cassar joined Kreis’ staff. “I got spoiled with him as a goalkeeper coach, so I always want him to be back there with me, so it was definitely an adjustment for myself. But he does everything he can to make things right.”

While Cassar had ridden the rises and falls of fortune for seven seasons with Kreis in charge, no one knew how he’d react to adversity as the main man. A blistering start to the season -- 12 games unbeaten -- ran into reality soon enough. The departure of midfielder Kyle Beckerman and Rimando for World Cup duty and the loss of striker Alvaro Saborio to a fractured metatarsal (suffered in Costa Rica's pre-World Cup camp) yielded a five-game winless streak that concluded June 28.

In a 1-0 loss to Chivas USA, midfielder Luke Mulholland, one of the offseason additions, was sent off for a studs-up challenge in the ninth minute. The shutout was RSL’s fourth of the season and third in that five-game stretch. A day after Beckerman and Rimando returned from Brazil, RSL beat New England, 2-1, and since the Chivas USA defeat it sports an unspectacular yet solid 6-2-3 record. Included in that run are victories over Seattle, D.C. United and FC Dallas, all of which look certain to make the playoffs.

A 2-1 victory over FCD reversed a loss to the same team by the same score Aug. 22, and that defeat grated on Cassar and his players. They played the entire second half with a man advantage yet conceded two goals, and prior to the rematch Cassar admitted that defeat stung more than normal.

“This one I want,” he said. “I think our whole team wants it, I think our whole club wants it. It’s not a must-win or anything, but we want this one.” They got the win dramatically; Saborio came off the bench for his first appearance in more than three months and seconds after jogging onto the field he headed home Javier Morales’ corner kick for the winning goal.

Along with Saborio’s return, the FCD game also marked the debut of recently signed Argentine forward Sebastian Jaime, who replaced Robbie Findley in the 67th minute. Cassar had considered bringing him on the previous week, in a 1-1 tie at San Jose, but decided against it. “In that type of heated battle, it would almost be unfair to him to put him into that situation,” said Cassar at the time. “We want to introduce him when the time is right.”

In his 23 minutes of action, Jaime launched a knuckling shot that keeper Raul Fernandez punched away. He is the sixth forward used this season by Cassar, and is one of several players who give RSL different looks for opponents to worry about. In his first MLS season, Mulholland is among the team leaders in games (25), goals (6) and assists (5).

Since that dramatic shakeup 22 months ago, the front line has been bolstered by Joao Plata, Olmes Garcia, Jaime, and Findley. Luis Gil, Cole Grossman, and Mulholland have joined stalwarts Ned Grabavoy, Beckerman and Morales in the midfield rotation. Chris Schuler has grown into the role as Olave’s replacement, with additional cover provided by Aaron Maund, who – like Plata – had been discarded by Toronto FC. Former Rev Kenny Mansally is an option on a back line that has featured Nat Borchers, Tony Beltran, and Chris Wingert since 2008.

Twelve field players have started at least 10 matches. Plata leads the team with 11 goals. Schuler has played every minute of his 22 starts. Jeff Attinella has proven to be a reliable stand-in for Rimando.

The RSL system is rooted in a diamond midfield formation and based on possession play. It has changed little over the years and been extensively scouted, yet seldom is an opponent able to contain it. Owners and coaches and players come and go and RSL goes on and on. Since winning the title in 2009, it has won at least 15 games and accumulated at least 53 points every season. It has finished second three times and third once.

“That comes from a lot of veterans on the team,” said Rimando, the oldster on the roster at 35. “When you have a lot of leaders on the team, it’s easy to kind of grab hold of them and push yourself and learn the system quick. You can have a coach telling you, but when you have a coach and players helping you out along the way, it does wonders.”

Mulholland concurs. A native of Preston, England, who played collegiately at Wingate University and moved up the ladder from USL PRO (Rookie of the Year in 2011) and NASL (Best XI in 2012 and 2013), he marvels at what RSL can do with modest resources. “RSL is a great organization, considering that they don’t spend a lot of money on star players,” he says. (He’s a pretty good bargain himself at an annual salary of $56,250.)

“If I mention their players to any of my friends back home in England" adds Mulholland, "they’ve never heard of them. There’s not one star player, any one of them can be a star player on the day.” Kreis has left the scene, yet his mantra of “the team is the star” has not.

The end product of Cassar’s first season is yet to be determined and Cassar still has to bear the pressures of a playoff push and postseason encounters. The system and formation are familiar yet there’s a different sheen to RSL in the first season after Kreis.

“Everyone’s getting healthier, so teams will have to figure out what kind of lineup we’re going to put out and deal with us that way,” says Cassar. “We’ve got several different combinations of forwards we can go with, we’ve got different combinations in the midfield and in the back line we can move players around and put Mansally [at left back] and add something new. So I think everything’s looking good.”
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