Real Salt Lake might not have the multiple trophies to prove it, but it has been the steadiest team in Major League Soccer for the better part of a decade, as the only franchise to make the playoffs each of the last seven seasons. Surely, the club's "The Team is the Star" motto will be put to the test in 2015, as the team fights to keep its identity despite major on-field and front-office turnover.
Dell Loy Hansen assumed sole ownership in 2013, coach Jason Kreis bolted for New York City FC and general manager Garth Lagerwey joined the Seattle Sounders in subsequent off-seasons. Important players Jámison Olave, Fabián Espíndola, Will Johnson, Ned Grabavoy, Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Carlos Salcedo and Robbie Findley all left within two years as well, though Olave now has returned via trade. No matter the change, optimism and thoughts of a trip to an eighth straight playoffs remain at the forefront in the new-look locker room.
“I miss [them] — those were my buddies that left,” captain Kyle Beckerman told SI.com in a phone interview from preseason camp in Arizona. “I’ve always been able to rely on them and always know that they were going to be there, so it was a different preseason, I guess. There’s a little difference going into this season, but I feel optimistic about things we can do this year.”
Manager Jeff Cassar, formerly Kreis’ right-hand man throughout the franchise’s ascent, leads the team into a precarious future. After his first managerial experience in 2014, Cassar, 41, feels prepared for his second season.
“I think I handled [the transition] fairly well,” Cassar said. “I’m not the finished product as a coach, and I don’t think you ever really are, but I’ve been doing a lot of work.”
After carrying over Kreis’ trademark 4-4-2 system with a diamond midfield in 2014, Cassar changed the team’s tactics ahead of the 2015 season. Among other benefits, a switch to 4-3-3 should remove him from Kreis’ considerable shadow and allow him to stamp his own identity on the team.
“It’s going to be interesting at first, for sure,” goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “Defensively, it looks like two holding midfielders is going to help us out a lot potentially, and going forward with three forwards, if we can keep possession, is going to be good for us.”
The team experimented with a 4-3-3 at various moments over the past two years—usually at Cassar’s behest, Beckerman said—making it permanent in preseason this year. The transition also offers a tangible point of evolution in RSL franchise history.
The initial iteration came with the team’s founding and playing at gargantuan Rice-Eccles Stadium, followed by the Kreis-Lagerwey revolution that brought Rimando and Beckerman to the team and a move to soccer-specific Rio Tinto Stadium. Beckerman said the team is now fully embroiled in the Cassar era.
“I think there were stories that came out a couple years ago that when we lost Will, Olave and Espíndola, that it was Real Salt Lake 2.0, but it really wasn’t. Everything was there — the diamond was there — so I would say this is the first time that it’s actually a new chapter,” he said. “I feel like this is his time to put his stamp on the team and take us in a new direction.”
Cassar said he the team continued its momentum in 2014, beginning with a 12-game unbeaten streak, eventually falling one point in the standings short of the team-record 57 but still getting back into the CONCACAF Champions League.
A 5-0 loss to the LA Galaxy in the playoffs seemed like an uncharacteristic slip rather than an indicator of a larger downward trend.
The expectation of success around the club lives on, and it still feels realistic.
“Through the success for many years now, the expectation’s there, so the pressure’s going to be there all the time. I put the pressure on myself,” Cassar said. “I know the club and the fans are expecting a good product. … Obviously, to be back in Champions League is huge for us. One of our major goals after we lost in the final was to get back to it and put ourselves, hopefully, in that situation again.”
RSL can measure itself early in the season, as it is slated to host star-studded Toronto FC in March and LA and NYCFC in May, when Kreis steps onto the same field as Salt Lake for the first time since its penalty shootout loss to Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup final.
If the team does make the CCL final again, it would be with a completely different lineup. Cassar tabbed a handful of younger players who should make their case for a future in claret and cobalt this year.
Luis Gil signed with the team in 2010 at age 16 and recently became the United States under-23 team captain. He remains the most visible personification of the club’s development pyramid from the academy to first team.
Joao Plata just signed a new long-term deal, and he’s already fourth among active RSL goalscorers despite playing less than half as many games as leader Álvaro Saborío, who is returning from a broken metatarsal that kept him out of the World Cup.
Unfortunately for RSL, Plata will miss the start of the season with a broken metatarsal of his own.
Argentine DP forward Sebastian Jaime and Colombian forward Olmes García round out a stylish attacking corps that still includes veteran playmaker Javier Morales.
Rimando, Beckerman, Morales, Saborío and right back Tony Beltran remain from those who played in the two-leg 2011 Champions League final against Mexican powerhouse Monterrey.
“Myself and Kyle, Javier and Sabo, there are a lot of veterans on our team still,” Rimando said. “We still have a lot of good pieces to Real Salt Lake, so we’ve just got to be veterans and lead by example.”
Beckerman and Rimando signed new three-year contracts in the off-season, and Saborío’s deal runs through 2015. Beckerman said their individual roles haven’t changed, despite their leadership becoming more pronounced to outside observers.
“What you’d expect of somebody else, you’ve got to do it every day,” he said. “Those guys that are coming in, they’re trying to jell. They want to be a part of what we’ve got going on for a couple years, so that seems to be pretty easy, to get guys to jell and get on board. So my role has been the same, and it’s just going to continue that way.”
Reverence for the past still permeates RSL, which has always maintained a proud familial feel in the dressing room. Being in MLS’ smallest market adds to the team’s closeness, but it also brings a constant threat of poachers with more resources looking to bolster their reserves.
RSL’s vulnerable position makes the team’s consistency on the field even more impressive, though that vulnerability has been stretched in recent months.
“Certain people have certain aspirations; I’m extremely happy where I am,” Cassar said. “You’re going to lose some players, you have to make tough decisions, but it’s a place where people come, they enjoy themselves, they start to grow roots in the community. We have unbelievable fans who have really embraced the team and the players, and it’s a place where you come, and you’re not sure how long you’re going to stay, and you end up staying for a very long time.”