With Jason Kreis taking over at NYCFC, new Real Salt Lake manager Jeff Cassar is trying to keep the club among MLS' elite.
Real Salt Lake made two trophy finals in 2013 and lifted neither prize.
D.C. United won the U.S. Open Cup 1-0 on RSL’s home turf while Sporting Kansas City bested the team in MLS Cup in a penalty shootout.
When the margins are so small, the most minute moments come under examination. Could the team selection, the field conditions, the game plan have been just a bit different and led to a trophy? No matter, things have changed in Utah. Yet, members of the team say almost nothing is different.
Manager Jason Kreis left to take over at NYCFC, and the team did what it could to keep things together. It promoted from within, with goalkeeper coach Jeff Cassar elevated to the hot seat and Andy Williams moving from head scout to assistant coach.
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“Of course there’s going to be little differences,” right back Tony Beltran told Goal USA. “Jeff is his own man, he has his own styles, some nuances in the game and how he sees things. For the most part, we’ve been so successful that he’s not going to change a whole lot.
“He’s going to stamp his personality on the trainings and help out flow throughout the team. That’s great because he’s a fantastic man. The principles are still there. The basic fundamentals which make Real Salt Lake are still there.”
The main fundamental is a mentality that strongly emphasizes the team above the individual. “The team is the star,” goes the mantra. But that’s not to say it’s a team without stars. The most obvious of the standout players is Kyle Beckerman, who has played for the club since midway 2007. Kries had just become the manager a month earlier, but Beckerman has played with other MLS managers in a brief stint with the Miami Fusion and a longer period with the Colorado Rapids.
“Really a lot of it has been similar,” Beckerman said of preseason with Cassar. “We’re sticking to a lot of the same things that we’ve done in the past and guess if it’s not broke don’t fix it, you know? We’re sticking with a lot of things, but we have done a couple things a little differently. For the most part, it’s been pretty steady.”
Cassar has emulated Kreis in a number of ways during the preseason, changing only little things like practice times. The manager said he’s enjoying the job but has been surprised by how all encompassing it can be.
“Just the time commitment, whether it’s media, putting together sessions, et. cetera and just getting myself and the staff all together for the first time. This preseason was very important for that,” he said after his squad’s final preseason game.
His job will involve mixing a number of veteran players like Beckerman, Javi Morales, Nick Rimando and Ned Grabavoy with younger players such as Beltran, Luis Gil, and Homegrown Players like Carlos Salcedo and Jordan Allen.
It’s a year after many pundits anticipated the team would fall off because of parting ways with several contributors and veterans continuing to age. The same criticisms, coupled with doubts about the team’s ability to execute without Kreis calling the shots, will dog Real Salt Lake if it struggles out of the gates this season.
The team, of course, has heard that all before and isn’t buying it.
“I don’t think it’s a last chance. People were saying last year, the year before it was maybe a last chance for this group,” Beltran said. “We continue to put ourselves in great spots making a run at trophies. Unfortunately that didn’t pan out last year, but still this team has certainly done something very special every year.
“I train with these guys, and from the oldest one to the youngest one, they’ve all got a lot of fight in them left and a lot of years in them left. It’s a talented group and we’ve got an extremely great dynamic from top to bottom so it’s fun to come into the training room every day and go to work.”
This weekend, the team will likely be without Chris Schuler, Robbie Findley and Devon Sandoval because of injury and will face a difficult opponent in the LA Galaxy.
“I don’t think it’s “Oh crap’ or anything, but I think we’re excited,” said Cassar on Saturday, using the same verbiage as a reporter. “I think it was just good for the first team to have a really solid performance. What I’m really excited about is there’s things to work on, things to get better, and we will.”
Expectations can be a brutal thing. For Cassar to better last season’s campaign, he’ll have to get RSL to a trophy. Anything less is a step back. Do RSL’s veterans have the legs? Can the young guns meet the required level? Will Cassar be able to steer the team successfully? If the answers are in the affirmative, the disappointment of 2013 will fade. If not, last year could be held up as the season that got away for years to come.