Javier Morales gesticulates - Close-up - 11/10/2016

Two weeks after their season ended with a Knockout Round loss at the LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake announced on Wednesday that they will bring back head coach Jeff Cassar for the 2017 season.

Cassar, whose contract was set to expire at the end of the year, just completed his third year in charge of RSL, helping the team return to the playoffs one year after a 2015 season in which they missed the postseason for the first time since 2007. Salt Lake were in position to host a playoff game for most of the year, but a late slide – they ended the year on an eight-game winless streak in regular season and postseason play – saw them drop to sixth in the West ahead of their 3-1 Knockout Round loss at LA.

The announcement was somewhat unique in that it guaranteed only one extra year for Cassar. The short length of the deal could be viewed as somewhat of a tepid endorsement of Cassar by RSL, who finished fourth in the league in his first year in charge, dropped to 15th in 2015 and climbed back to ninth in the overall table this season but have never won a playoff series under the former MLS goalkeeper.

While the brief extent of his contract will certainly keep Cassar on his toes, the 42-year-old will have an opportunity to trigger an automatic extension for 2018. RSL general manager Craig Waibel told me over the phone on Wednesday that a contractual option to retain Cassar in 2018 will be automatically triggered if he hits a certain performance benchmark in 2017. Waibel wouldn't say what that specific benchmark is, but an improvement on this year's finish – say, a top-four finish and guaranteed home playoff game in the West – seems like it'd be reasonable. 

Waibel acknowledged that RSL’s late slide cast a pall over the entire year, but said that Cassar’s full body of work as manager and the team’s improvement this year – their second in a 4-3-3 formation – merited bringing him back under the new contract.

“In Jeff’s first year I think we finished fourth in the league, in his second year I believe we finished 15th and the third year we finished ninth,” Waibel said. “All of this happens in massive transition, a lot of people leaving the organization, myself changing roles within the organization, his own staff changing dramatically over the course of trying to figure out the correct fit and we saw a very good improvement this year. When you finish 15th and you jump up to ninth in the league, it’s optimistic to then say you’re going to jump six more spots next year up to third, but it suggests there’s a trend in terms of the understanding of the system, the implementation of the system, as well as the coaching of the system.”

Waibel, who worked as an assistant under Cassar in 2014 before moving into the front office ahead of the 2015 season after former GM Garth Lagerwey left for Seattle, also indicated that there were “some locker room issues” outside of the coaching staff’s control that plagued RSL down the stretch. He wouldn’t specify what exactly the issues were, but that the problem “certainly warrants the coaching staff” getting the benefit of the doubt for another year.

“Now, we finished on an eight-game winless streak which means we can’t pretend that everything was roses and chocolates all year,” he said. “We have to acknowledge the fact that we struggled at the end of the year, but there’s some things that we have to evaluate in house and things that we won’t share publicly that we feel played a great role in that. We’ve had all of our player meetings, we’ve had all of our staff meetings and we feel like we’ve been able to properly evaluate it with kind of limiting the emotion and actually dealing with what came back through all these conversations. We feel like we have a good plan to address it now.

“I’d say that I strongly believe that the staff is responsible for the locker room, but I also understand, having played and having coached, that you can’t control every facet of an organization and you can’t control every facet of a locker room. And at times there are certain impacts within a locker room that just quite simply need to be dealt with and changed that fall well outside the realm of being able to have managed differently.”

Morales moves on, but RSL open to return

Waibel was quick to squash any notion that those issues had anything to do with Javier Morales, who announced last week that he is leaving RSL. The 36-year-old midfielder posted a message to his Twitter account last Thursday saying goodbye “to the RSL fans, to my teammates, my friends and to the people of Utah” after 10 seasons with the team.

The club’s all-time leader in assists and perhaps the integral attacking piece in RSL’s MLS Cup championship in 2009 and subsequent runs to the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League and 2013 MLS Cup finals, Morales recorded 49 goals and 81 assists in 240 career regular season appearances with Salt Lake. His time there shouldn’t be discounted, but he did have a bit of a dip in 2016. He recorded just four goals and four assists this year, the second-lowest and lowest totals of his RSL career outside of his injury-curtailed 2011 season.

According to Waibel, RSL held an option on Morales’ contract for the 2017 season, but didn’t want to bring the veteran back at a salary that would’ve necessitated the use of Targeted Allocation Money to bring his number under the Designated Player-threshold. Waibel said that the club were interested in having Morales back in 2017 on a different contract and in more of a reserve role, but that the Argentine – who will qualify for MLS free agency – wanted to explore his options to remain a starter.

Waibel didn’t rule out a return for Morales to RSL, saying the club would like to eventually “circle back” with the playmaker on the potential of him coming back to the team as more of a reserve.

“Javi is a fantastic player, one of the greatest ambassadors this club’s ever had and one of the greatest players, undoubtedly, that Real Salt Lake’s ever had,” Waibel said. “And as we watched this season unfold, I think not everything’s about statistics, I’m not the guy that looks just at a statistical number and makes a decision, but there is a natural evolution that comes with a player’s career and there are some pretty difficult decisions that come with the aging process.

“I believe that we as an organization need to get a little bit younger on the roster. I believe we need to get a little bit more dynamic and I think that the wear and tear of the MLS season in terms of Javier as a starter was very, very difficult on him. And again, that’s just my opinion. I understand that we all have a different view. But the conversation with Javi was very mature, he was fantastic in the conversation… and I think Javi felt at the end of the day that he may have an opportunity [elsewhere] to contribute on the field more than possibly he interpreted the conversation we had. And to be clear, I’m not shying away from anything, I believe that Javi’s greatest role for our organization moving forward would’ve been coming off the bench. I still feel that Javier would be a remarkable asset for our organization if that’s a role that he sees himself accepting and accelerating in.”

For his part, it doesn’t seem like Morales is all that interested in that possibility. Shortly after my interview with Waibel ended on Wednesday, Morales announced that he will hold a press conference at a hotel in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday to clarify his departure from the team. He said in the announcement that “I am not retiring and I am not leaving because I want to.”

Regardless of whether he leaves or returns as a reserve, Waibel and RSL will now have to find a new starting No. 10. As is to be expected, they’ve already begun their search, with scout Andy Williams completing a scouting trip to Colombia earlier this week.

Waibel said that the team, which will have a Designated Player spot available this winter as Joao Plata will no longer count as a DP, will take their time with the search, pointing to Seattle’s acquisition of Nicolas Lodeiro in July as an example of a team that successfully waited for the right playmaker instead of bringing in a lesser player or worse fit earlier in the process. Until then, Waibel said that the team feels that Homegrown player Jordan Allen, veteran Luke Mulholland and No. 5 overall pick in last year’s SuperDraft Omar Holness are capable of playing as RSL’s attacking midfielder.

“We do have a couple of guys on our roster that can play that position…. Now, can they take a game over? That’s really the question that we have to answer,” Waibel said. “For us as an organization we’ll continue to look for that that dynamic player that can kind of take the game over, but not in a panicky mode. We have guys that can play there and, you know, I’ll use Seattle as a good example. We certainly aren’t working on the same budget that they are, but their patience to wait for the summer window [for Lodeiro] paid off because they couldn’t find the exact player they wanted in the winter window. So we have enough talent to fill that position currently, but we must shop for the next longer term solution.”

“You shouldn’t just put a band aid on that position,” he added. “That guarantees long-term struggles. You’ve got to make sure you get the right guy.”

Columbus forever… For now

There’s no division on this subject.

As they told our Andrew King yesterday, US national team players are adamant that Columbus should “always” host the home World Cup qualifier against Mexico.

The USMNT have never lost to Mexico in Columbus, beating El Tri by that famous Dos a Cero scoreline in each of the last four World Cup qualifying cycles. They’ll look to turn that trick once more on Friday, when they’ll again host El Tri at MAPFRE Stadium (7:45 pm ET; FS1, Univision).

Earlier this week, I talked with commentators Alexi Lalas of FOX Sports, who will be in Columbus covering Friday’s match, and Taylor Twellman of ESPN about whether Columbus should remain the perpetual home for US-Mexico qualification clashes. Both of the former US internationals agreed with the current crop of players, albeit for slightly different reasons.

Lalas and Twellman both echoed Tim Howard and Sacha Kljestan in pointing out the fact that the US feels comfortable and confident against Mexico in Columbus, where, unlike at other, larger venues, the crowd at roughly 24,000-seat MAPFRE Stadium has historically been very pro-USMNT.

In a point I found interesting, both broadcasters also pointed to keeping US-Mexico in Columbus to continue one of the few meaningful USMNT traditions.

“I think while we have established a [soccer] culture that has certainly become much more robust and discerning and above-ground, it’s no longer niche. We also don’t have as much tradition, so when something comes along that is universally recognized as our own and something unique and something special to the American soccer community, I think we should value it and protect it,” said Lalas, who never played in a US-Mexico qualifier in Columbus but has covered multiple editions of the match.

“It’s unique, it’s working and it’s American. It’s not broken, so don’t try to fix it.”

Added Twellman: “During the Euros when I was over in France just looking around [Twellman served as a broadcaster for ESPN at the UEFA Euro 2016 this summer], I was wondering, ‘OK, at what point does the United States start their own traditions on the men’s side?’ It’s a discussion all around the world. You know the German jersey, the Italian jersey, the Brazilian jersey, everyone’s got their traditional kit, traditional uniform and wear it when the big World Cup qualifiers are played. And it kind of hit me, I don’t know why it hit me while I was [in France broadcasting] Euros, but it hit me that at some point the United States has to have their own tradition and I think Columbus is on the top of the list.”

Both Lalas and Twellman acknowledged that US Soccer could certainly make more money by holding the match at a larger venue. With the emergence of the sport over the last 15 years, and soccer’s rapid growth in cities like Seattle, it’s not inconceivable that the US could maintain a home field advantage against Mexico at certain larger venues.

That didn’t matter much to Lalas.

“I think there are other markets where we could have a predominantly American supporting audience, but I think there’s something magical about it and there’s something that breeds confidence [in Columbus],” he said. “It has become part of the mythology of American soccer fans, who, let’s be honest, are very unique breed. And having something of your own, even though it might not be perfect, even though there might be alternatives that at least on the surface could be more beneficial, I like that there’s a history and I like that it’s there, warts and all.”

Twellman, who dressed but did not play in the US’s 2-0 win against Mexico in Columbus in 2005, was of a slightly different opinion. He thinks the match should remain in Columbus, but also sees the game eventually outgrowing MAPFRE Stadium.

Where he thinks the match will land if it does move is nothing more than a wild guess, however.

“Do I think at some point [the game will outgrow MAPFRE Stadium]? Yeah, I do. Is it in the next World Cup qualifying cycle? Probably not, but I don’t think it’s 50 years down the road, either,” he said.

“I’ve always wondered about if the Portland Timbers had a 30,000 seat stadium, if Seattle had a stadium that was grass and the field was first and that kind of thing, I wonder what that discussion would be like. But again, you’ve got to be careful because you don’t want to lose the pro-United States crowd. I think you have to be 100 percent certain that you’re going to get that, and I think there’s very few places right now that you would get that.”

All quiet in Colorado

It doesn’t sound like we’ll be getting an update on Pablo Mastroeni’s contract status until the Colorado Rapids’ season comes to a close.

Mastroeni led the Rapids to a shock second-place finish in the Supporters’ Shield standings and guided his team past the LA Galaxy in the recently completed Western Conference Semifinals. His initial three-year contract will expire at the end of the year.

In late September, he told me that the Rapids had yet to offer him a new deal. I reached out to Colorado this week to re-inquire about the status of negotiations, and the Rapids declined to comment. Mastroeni’s agent said that the former USMNT midfielder doesn’t want to talk about his contract until the season ends.

As I wrote earlier this fall, I think Mastroeni deserves Coach of the Year honors. He got my vote – he should get a new contract, too.