Some would call it transition. The new general manager of Real Salt Lake prefers to call it “evolution.”
The transformation, to use yet another word, of RSL has moved Craig Waibel from the position of technical director to general manager, a post left vacant since Garth Lagerwey departed in December to join the Sounders organization. It’s a second major change for the organization in the past two weeks; former team president Bill Manning, who had joined RSL in April 2008, left earlier this month upon expiration of his contract.
“It’s a little soon but everyone’s going to have to pick up bits and pieces,” said Waibel in a telephone interview Thursday about the changes that have moved him into the chair once occupied by Lagerwey. Last December he was promoted from assistant coach to technical director and assumed many of Lagerwey’s duties on competitive issues.
“Obviously, Garth and Bill worked together very, very efficiently. I found the same relationship with Bill. Part of the evolution of sport is also the evolution of the business. There are some pieces of it that I think we’re a little bit behind on, quite frankly. As an organization, we need to grow and we will be. We’re in a good spot moving forward and I’m confident.
Waibel, who turned 40 on Aug. 21, has risen quickly since ending his playing career in 2010 with four MLS Cup titles to his credit (Galaxy 2002, Quakes 2003, Dynamo 2006, 2007). He worked as an assistant coach at Michigan for a season and then spent two more years on the coaching staff of his alma mater, the University of Washington, before signing on as an assistant to RSL head coach Jeff Cassar for the 2014 season.
He thought he’d be an assistant for at least a few more years but in the wake of Lagerwey’s departure a different position, and challenge, opened up.
“The opportunity coming up is what drew me,” said Waibel of taking the job as technical director. “I’ve always been interested in this side of the game, in general. I thought I’d stay on the sidelines a little bit longer before an opportunity like this came up. I always thought this was something I wanted to do. It was a pretty easy decision.
“I miss the sidelines dearly but I’m learning a lot of stuff on this side of the game. It’s a lot of fun.”Real Salt Lake Playoff Picture:
Less than one year as technical director isn’t much foundation to be the general manager of an ambitious operation such as RSL, which is struggling to maintain its run of playoff appearances that currently stands at seven -- the longest active streak in MLS. But Waibel obviously has the confidence of team owner Dell Loy Hansen, who bought out former owner Dave Checketts in 2013 and has overseen extensive changes, including the departure of former head coach Jason Kreis and several prominent players.
A season full of injuries and international callups has made it a tough go for Cassar, formerly an assistant coach who took over for Kreis prior to the 2014 season.
“Obviously, we’ve had a lot of change on our roster and in our front office,” said Cassar in a telephone interview Thursday. “But the one thing you can’t really plan for is injuries. We’ve had a lot of players called into their national teams and we’ve had a lot of injuries to our players who were not called in.
“So to look for the consistency we really need to be competitive in the West, it’s really been tough. But that being said, I think it made our group stronger. A lot of young guys got valuable experience that they typically wouldn’t have, and I think at the end of the day it’s going to make our team stronger.”
Waibel’s promotion is accompanied by other moves designed to modernize and upgrade the team’s competitive operations. Rob Zarkos, president of the team’s USL entry Real Monarchs, is now the vice president of soccer administration. They will work closely with assistant general manager Elliot Fall in areas where Waibel believes RSL hasn’t kept up with the times. It has set the bar high by forming the RSL-Arizona academy and developing players such as Jordan Allen and Carlos Salcedo but needs improvement in other areas.
“I think we need to develop a little bit more on our analytic side, on our scouting side,” said Waibel. “I think we need to be a bit more proactive and efficient reaching out and being ahead of the game. We certainly we have the opportunity to build that. From an academy side, we’re very efficient on that end of it. I think we need to continue to challenge our reach.
“We’re a mid-market club, quote-unquote, but we’re one of the most successful. We need to continue to operate without the stigma and the mindset that we have to stay in this little box. We need to continue to think bigger, and realistically, we need to operate bigger.”
Waibel says a lot of long-term planning and implementation will take place in a few months, but extending that playoff streak is of imminent importance. To that end, Cassar has been working recently acquired forward Juan Martinez into the squad heading into a match at FC Dallas on Saturday and is also encouraged by what he’s seen recently from Luis Silva, acquired last month in the trade that sent RSL’s all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio to D.C. United. He is 33 and in the final year of a DP contract that Waibel and Cassar did not want to extend.
“Obviously losing Sabo, that’s a big chunk of your scoring,” said Cassar of the Costa Rican international who tallied 63 goals since joining RSL in 2010. “You lose leadership and a veteran player, but when you pick up somebody like Luis, who had 14 goals and six assists [the past two seasons for D.C.] and can score from different positions -- he can play a second forward, he can play a winger, he can play as a No. 10 -- and you can see how valuable he can be to our team, I knew it was a move I needed to make. And it opened up a Designated Player spot for Juan.”
Waibel says the process of acquiring Martinez, 29, required a sales job on the league and the city as much as haggling about finances. He knew of the Argentine native who had played for Boca Juniors as well as Corinthians in Brazil but Martinez didn’t know much about his possible destination.
“It was extended,” says Waibel. “Juan had obviously never played in MLS and it was a big move culturally for him. So a lot of the conversation going back and forth, I’ll call the discovery phase of him asking more about our club and America. He’s a young man with a young family so he had a lot of questions soccer-related and lifestyle-related.
“That extended the negotiation a little bit but at the same time it was a really efficient negotiation. I will say there weren’t many stones left unturned by the time he showed up. We felt like we knew each other pretty well.”
Waibel and Cassar regard Martinez as a highly technical player who will fit the RSL style of skill and possession as well as slot into different spots. He’s also a litmus test of the new regime, an example – good or bad – of how RSL will operate as its evolution continues. It has been a mid-market marvel since opening Rio Tinto Stadium in 2008 -- not long after Checketts had threatened to move the team -- and winning an MLS Cup title the following year. Missing the playoffs isn't cause for panic but in the wake of drastic changes such a failure would trigger questions about the future.
Cassar took over from an iconic figure in Kreis. Waibel and staff will try to maintain the success forged by Lagerwey and Manning. Martinez and Silva will be counted on for attacking flair goals, as was Saborio. A strong core of keeper Nick Rimando, defender Jamison Olave and midfielder Kyle Beckerman is in place but as those players age others will be called upon.
“That’s how we are at RSL,” says Cassar. “When somebody moves on, somebody steps into their place and has to perform."