The successful general manager has left for a conference rival, but coach Jeff Cassar is confident he's learned enough from his first season to make the second a success.
Not many general managers have received as much attention as Garth Lagerwey. Of course, not many have been as successful in the role as Lagerwey, who left Real Salt Lake this offseason after seven years to take the same position with the Seattle Sounders.
But Real Salt Lake did what Real Salt Lake has become known for doing in its front office - it promoted from within. Craig Waibel took over as technical director after spending last season as an assistant to Jeff Cassar, who spent his first season as head coach in 2014 after seven years as Jason Kreis' assistant at the club.
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"I had a wonderful relationship with Garth both working and friendship, so obviously losing him was a big thing for our club," Cassar told Goal USA. "But, with Craig into that role now, he’s a very detailed, organized person. Him and I’s relationship is just like Garth’s where he was my assistant coach, he knows how I think, he knows the type of players that I want on the team. When your GM and your head coach are on the same page, that’s a great thing. It’s a great thing for the organization."
The front office isn't the only place RSL is seeing change with a number of players departing the club in the winter. Midfielders Ned Grabavoy and Sebastian Velasquez and defenders Chris Wingert and Kwame Watson-Siriboe all went to New York City FC, where Kreis currently manages. Nat Borchers also left, heading to the Portland Timbers.
But the club also brought back a familiar face, with Jamison Olave returning from the Red Bulls, and signed a left back replacement in Demar Phillips. Though two new defensive starters will be added to the mix, right back Tony Beltran says the unit will pick up where it left off last season.
"There’s been a lot of consistency over the years with the back line," he said. "It’s funny playing next to Olave, I was really excited about the opportunity of playing next to him again. Obviously sad to see Nat go, sad to see Wingert go, they’re tremendous players, that’s pro sports. It’s part of the job.
"After playing with Olave again for a few days I started to remember his tendencies, and what he’s capable of. He’s such a physical specimen, he brings such a presence to games, to our back line. Him and Schuler lining up next to each other, those are two of the most imposing guys in the league. I’m really excited about that pairing."
Beltran is also excited about another change at the club. After years playing in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield, the club will likely change things up and start in something more akin to a 4-3-3 which the coaching staff believes is a better fit for its current personnel.
"The formation that we’ve played for a long time is a wonderful formation with the players that we had on the roster," Cassar said. "It was a great formation for that. As our team has evolved and our rosters have changed and gotten different, we feel that this formation for the club and the players we have is the best one. And it also gives us a little bit of flexibility to move players around for tactical reasons. So far this preseason, things have looked very good at times ,but also, like I said with learning new things, you’re only going to get better as things progress. I’m pleased with where we’re at right now, but there’s a lot of room for improvement which is exciting."
That will be necessary with a campaign that will see Real Salt Lake contest the CONCACAF Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup in addition to the MLS regular season. Last year's season was a largely successful one, but Cassar says the 5-0 loss to LA in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal has stuck in his mind and motivated him to improve despite tying the club's record for most points in a season.
If the club can improve on last season despite the transitions, fans on the Wasatch Front will happily trade the days of Kreis and Lagerwey for the era of Cassar and Waibel.
REAL SALT LAKE SEASON PREVIEW
2014 FINISH: Third in Western Conference (15-8-11), eliminated in conference semifinals
NOTABLE ADDITIONS: D Jamison Olave, D Demar Phillips, M Pecka
NOTABLE LOSSES: D Carlos Salcedo, M Ned Grabavoy, D Chris Wingert, D Nat Borchers, F Robbie Findley, M Sebastian Velasquez, D Kwame Watson-Siriboe
TOP NEWCOMER: Demar Phillips. Olave is on the list too, but he hardly counts as a newcomer after making nearly 100 appearances for RSL earlier in his career. Phillips comes in to replace the left back slot vacated when Wingert joined former manager Jason Kreis. The Jamaican international loves to get forward with his speed but also can help the club at the back. He couldn't catch on with Stoke City, where he made single-digit appearances in his two years with the Premier League outfit, but has excelled recently in Norway.
"With Demar, we got somebody that has an unbelievable engine, can get up and down the line tirelessly and serves in a fantastic ball, and again is not scared to get into a challenge," Cassar said.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Alvaro Saborio. There's no doubt the Costa Rican can score when he's on the field, but getting on the field and staying there has proven problematic for the 32-year-old. With the Gold cup coming up this year and the Claret and Cobalt in multiple competitions, it will be as important as ever for Saborio to stay fit - something he hasn't been able to do the previous two campaigns.
If he is at the top of his game, he'll be a crucial cog in what could become a well-oiled goal-scoring machine. If not, Cassar will have to find production elsewhere.
Real Salt Lake is a team with experience in players like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Alvaro Saborio and youth in guys like Luis Gil, Joao Plata and Elias Vasquez. That blend has worked together well in the past, but as coach Jeff Cassar is well aware having some level of depth will be necessary with the team playing a number of competitions and losing a number of players to the Gold Cup this summer.
Ultimately, despite losing several players to former manager Jason Kreis' New York City FC side and seeing Garth Lagerwey start a new challenge, Real Salt Lake's culture of excellence should continue into 2015.