Armchair Analyst: Culture, continuity and the Real Salt Lake way
How you feel about Jeff Cassar being named the new coach of Real Salt Lake, if you happen to be an RSL fan, largely depends upon how you felt about the six seasons leading up to Wednesday afternoon.
Cassar was a big part of Jason Kreis' staff -- basically the biggest, once Robin Fraser (who was probably the favorite to land this job) left for Chivas USA, and then New York. Cassar came on board in Utah just days after Kreis took over way back in May of 2007, and has been there ever since.
Now it's his team, and he'll have to get out of his former boss' and future competitor's shadow. But not too far out of it.
1. Staying with the on-field system
Culture is important in the locker room, while continuity -- chemistry -- is boss on the field. It's what lets teams with limited salary budgets compete with the LAs, New Yorks and Seattles of the world.
To put it another way: RSL shipped out Will Johnson, Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Johnny Steele after the 2012 season, and everyone screamed they were "undergoing a roster overhaul! It's a rebuilding year!"
That's four players out of their top 20, and they had ready-made replacements for three of them, and each had been groomed for the role. With any other team in the league, that kind of turnover would be entirely unremarkable. Seattle, New York and a handful of others have already hit that mark this offseason, and the 2013 MLS Cup isn't even two weeks old yet.
Promoting Cassar means the decision-makers in Sandy are valuing that chemistry, and probably banking on the fact that the new coach will stick to old ways. Expect the diamond-4 midfield, expect one target forward and one secondary striker, and expect a team that gets 50 or more points yet again.
Bill Manning: "[Cassar] had a plan that he presented to us to keep team operating efficiently and competing at a championship level." #RSL
— Chris Kamrani (@chriskamrani) December 18, 2013
Expect a Jeff Cassar team to look very much like a Jason Kreis team.
2. New York can breathe a sigh of relief
Fraser would have been a huge loss for New York. By most counts he's one of the best in the league at running a training session. He's had time on the sideline of his own. He was a two-time MLS Defender of the Year and former USMNT player who commands immediate respect. And he and Mike Petke reportedly have a symbiotic working relationship.
The Red Bulls, who are once again changing fairly significant parts of their roster, and perhaps their tactical approach, dodged a bullet:
Whew! Fraser stays at #RBNY.
— Lisa Richardson (@tvlisanyc) December 18, 2013
But maybe not for long. His name will be at the top of the list for the next head coaching vacancy in MLS (it's kind of remarkable that he hasn't been mentioned at all for FC Dallas).
3. Keeping the culture of the RSL way
There has, very quietly, been a lot of turnover in Utah over the past 12-18 months. Forget the loss of Kreis, and the likes of Johnson and Olave. It's not really the playing field at Rio Tinto that's got a new look -- it's the corridors inside the stadium. By some estimates, nearly half the front office staff has left for one reason or another.
So there's been a very real worry that once Kreis went, and maybe if GM Garth Lagerwey goes, and a few more people here and there, then that would be that. All the stuff that made a small-market team a big-time, yearly competitor would disappear, requiring a rebuild of both talent and culture.
Hiring Cassar stems that tide. Maybe even reverses it.
The signal here is that "The Team is the Star" is still very much an RSL thing, whether or not Kreis is there. Hiring from within the family is a signal that the family is still No. 1, with or without the guy who sat at the head of the table for nearly seven years.