Commentary

Next move for Real Salt Lake is the most crucial in a decade

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)
 
So many major changes have been wrought at Real Salt Lake it may seem a long time ago when Dell Loy Hansen bought out the remaining ownership interest of team founder Dave Checketts.

Let the record show that Hansen, whose first investment in the club dovetailed with its winning the MLS Cup title in 2009, has been at the helm for more than four years. By the standards of MLS, which has been adding expansion teams and stadiums at a combined rate of more than one per year for the past decade, four years is rather short in real time but considerable in the amount of change.

Let the record also show that since Hansen’s buyout of Checketts was announced in January, 2013, these principal executives have left: head coach Jason Kreis (December, 2013), general manager Garth Lagerwey (December, 2014) and president Bill Manning (July, 2015).

In all cases, the contracts of these men had expired. Kreis had already agreed to coach New York City FC during the 2013 season, but only after he’d been unable to negotiate an extension or new deal to stay. By whatever process, the opinion of Hansen prevailed when Lagerwey and Manning departed and now, with the dismissal on Monday of Kreis’ former assistant coach Jeff Cassar, who took over as head coach for Kreis prior to the 2014 season, another significant link to the Checketts regime has been severed.

And in all cases, the former RSL employees have found gainful jobs in MLS. Kreis ran aground of ownership at NYCFC but landed on his feet with its fellow 2015 expansion entrant Orlando City. Lagerwey is steering the ship in Seattle and through choppy waters of a coaching change (Sigi Schmid out, assistant Brian Schmetzer in) claimed its first MLS Cup title. Manning joined Toronto FC, which in an expanded BMO Field last December inched to within a penalty kick of winning a title.

That’s a lot of experience and success and institutional knowledge to send packing. The inevitable process of change can be sudden, gradual, and a mixture of the two, and it’s measured by most fans and media members in terms of players. The effect was dramatic when stalwart defender Nat Borchers went to Portland, and all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio left for D.C. United.

A few players, such as combative captain Kyle Beckerman and wonder-keeper Nick Rimando, trace their RSL lineage back to the MLS Cup title run, and there are people in the front office who have been around that long as well. Yet clearly the team is poised to embark on a new era, directed by Hansen and general manager Craig Waibel, first hired by the club as technical director as Lagerwey left, and named to succeed him just six months later.

Contrast the history of RSL -- which has employed just three head coaches, starting with John Ellinger in the 2005 expansion season -- with more turbulent counterparts Toronto FC, San Jose, Montreal and Vancouver to name a few, and the track record is one of remarkable stability. Yet the team’s greatest triumphs are starting to fade away.

RSL won its only title in 2009, reached the Concacaf Champions League final in 2011 and played in its second MLS Cup final in 2013. Kreis oversaw all of those accomplishments and though he needed some time to grow into the head coaching job when handed the reins by Checketts just four games into the 2007 season, he set a very high bar his former assistant Cassar could not reach.

Three games into the season is the earliest dismissal in league history, yet Cassar started 2017 on shaky ground. RSL finished the 2016 regular season on a seven-game winless run and lost, 3-1, to the Galaxy in the Knockout Round. Discussions to renew or extend his three-year contract were held last October, but announcements the following month that he would be retained did not specify the terms or specifics.

In Cassar’s rookie season as head coach, RSL finished third in the Western Conference. It plummeted to ninth in 2015 but with a year to run on his contract, Cassar stayed on and for much of the 2016 season was in the hunt for a home playoff game. The poor finish and early playoff elimination cast his future in doubt, and after a quiet offseason that featured dalliances with Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu, a struggling start of one tie and two losses with just one goal scored apparently tipped him into the abyss.

The big press conference Tuesday officially confirmed a summer visit of Manchester United, which plays RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium July 17 in what is apparently a tune-up for United’s schedule in the International Champions Cup. United starts off its tour two days earlier against the Galaxy at StubHub Center, and in the ICC plays rival Manchester City, and Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Since naming Kreis to replace Ellinger nearly a decade ago, RSL has carried high the flag of small-market teams that attain big things. It should be commended for giving Cassar the chance to establish how own legacy at the club, though it can be argued that during his tenure another mid-level team, Portland, rolled to a title with a guy named Borchers as its defensive pillar and beat another modest spender, Columbus, in the final.

Just what route Hansen takes for his next head coach is tricky to decipher. He doesn’t seem the type to hire from within, though speculation on RSL Monarchs head coach and former Red Bulls’ boss Mike Petke is inevitable. Interim head coach Daryl Shore is the short-term solution. The influence wielded by Waibel, who played in the league for a decade and spent one season (2014) as RSL assistant coach, is considerable. In the heyday of his career with San Jose (2003-05) and Houston (2006-10), Waibel played on four MLS Cup-winning teams, and his contacts and connections around the league are extensive.

Yet like Hansen, Waibel is still on trial with the RSL fans, who are yet to be convinced the new regime is legit where it counts: in the standings. A great facility, solid attendances and revenues, and expansion of a praiseworthy development program are expected to accompany success, which for the last two years just hasn’t shown up often enough.
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