TUCSON – Two years ago, before the start of the 2013 season, Real Salt Lake broke up part of the team that came so close to winning the CONCACAF Champions League in 2011.
Salary cap considerations forced the club to ship current Timbers captain Will Johnson to Portland and trade influential defender Jamison Olave and current D.C. Designated Player Fabian Espindola to New York. Garth Lagerwey, then the club’s general manager, said the changes ushered in a new era in Salt Lake, going as far as to call the new squad “RSL 2.0.” Many others in the front office and around the league agreed with him.
Claret-and-Cobalt captain Kyle Beckerman wasn’t one of them.
The veteran defensive midfielder was adamant that things would keep rolling along in Utah. After all, RSL still had him, then-head coach Jason Kreis, goalkeeper Nick Rimando, forward Alvaro Saborio and their vaunted diamond midfield. This wouldn’t be a rebuild, he said. This would be a recharge.
Beckerman, in his own way, was right. RSL were fabulous in 2013, finishing second in the Western Conference and reaching the US Open Cup and MLS Cup finals.
But now, after losing Kreis in the 2013 offseason and Lagerwey and longtime stalwarts Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, midfielder Ned Grabavoy and forward Robbie Findley this winter, Beckerman (right) is singing a different tune.
The departures aren’t the only reason why Beckerman has changed his song. RSL is also switching formations, working exclusively in a 4-3-3 this preseason. They aren’t planning on ditching the diamond entirely but, after using it almost exclusively for seven years, it will no longer be their main setup.
“It absolutely is [a new era],” Beckerman told MLSsoccer.com last week in Tucson. “A couple of years ago, our general manager at the time kept saying it was Real Salt Lake 2.0, but that wasn’t the case.
“Back then we had the diamond in place, we had those guys we lost this year. Losing them, Findley, Grabavoy, Wingert, Borchers, those guys were a huge part of the success here. Without those guys, with a new formation and new guys, this year I really feel like it’s a new chapter in Real Salt Lake.”
Second-year head coach Jeff Cassar and first-year technical director Craig Waibel – an assistant under Cassar last year – were the main architects of the formation switch, turning the page on the Kreis/Lagerwey era by casting aside one of its main calling cards.
The new look will give RSL a bit more attacking firepower, putting three forwards – Saborio, DP Sebastian Jaime and Olmes Garcia to start the year, with Joao Plata likely returning to the lineup when he recovers from injury – on the field with dynamic attacking midfielder Javier Morales.
Beckerman and Luis Gil will fill out the midfield, with Beckerman sitting deep and Gil shuttling between the lines, occasionally working in a double-pivot with Beckerman.
The backline’s responsibilities won’t change much, but it will feature two new starters. After two years with the Red Bulls, Olave is back to replace Borchers and pair with Chris Schuler, while Jamaican international Demar Phillips was added this offseason to slot in for Wingert, who’s now with Kreis at New York City FC.
“I think it’s another weapon in the arsenal,” Cassar said of the 4-3-3. “Our roster has changed a little bit. Where we were very deep in the midfield before, now we seem to have a little bit more top-heavy players. It’s all about getting all those players on the field while also still playing the same soccer that we want.”
Apart from finding a way to get their most talented 11 on the field, one of the main reasons RSL is changing their shape is because they feel like some of the league’s best clubs figured out the diamond.
The Claret-and-Cobalt struggled against the top teams in MLS last year, famously getting ripped 5-0 at LA in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal series and posting a 3-5-4 regular season record against the other four West playoff teams.
“This core has been together for so long that the rest of the league’s played against them for long enough that they’ve started to figure out little ways to defend against the diamond,” Waibel said. “So we’re actually developing more options, and we’re in the process of exposing the guys to different looks and different spots on the field that we think really emphasize another evolution for our team.”
The change is also part of Cassar’s natural evolution as a manager. The RSL goalkeeper coach from 2007 until he was hired to replace Kreis in December 2013, the 4-3-3 – and the offseason moves that accompanied it – mark his first major departures from his predecessor.
The moves were big steps for Cassar, who at times struggled to create his own identity during his first season in charge.
“Just in a year, watching him take over a really strong locker room and group and catering more to the players’ needs and ideals when he took over versus now, with this empowerment of himself as a head coach and his ideas, is truly an interesting transition,” Waibel said.
“He’s growing rapidly and quickly in terms of his strength in his beliefs and that’s what the end result has to be, him continuing to evolve every day, every week, every year.”
There was some initial hesitation, but the players have mostly bought in to the 4-3-3. They still need time to work into it, but the results have been good so far, with the team winning all four of their matches in Tucson to take home the Desert Diamond Cup.
It’s a new era, but as the Claret-and-Cobalt have discovered, change isn’t always a bad thing. Tweaks aren’t always comfortable, but as long as they keep RSL shining, things will be just alright on the Wasatch Front, diamond or no diamond.
“It’s different, but I think it can definitely be a good thing,” Beckerman said. “Playing in the diamond for so long and knowing that it works, it’s tough to just abandon that. But Jeff has ideas, he wants to go in this direction and I think it can work. If it fails then we can always go back to the diamond, it’ll always be there. But I think it can be really good.
“We definitely have to put in some more work and once the season comes around we’ve got to make it work, but I think it can be a really positive thing for our team.”