Real Salt Lake announced it had hired assistant coach Jeff Cassar as its head coach on Wednesday December 18, ending several days of speculation since Jason Kreis resigned. The allure of being at expansion Major League Soccer club New York City FC and working with partners like the New York Yankees and Manchester City was apparently too much for Kreis who felt he had "mountains to climb," as RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen said in The Salt Lake Tribune. Even Hansen's reported final offer of Bruce Arena-like money -- the kind that puts him among the highest paid in MLS -- wasn't enough to keep him in Utah.
As there aren't many "mountains" per se in NYC -- unless you count man-made scapes spanning 50 stories or more every where you turn -- we'll assume that Hansen's quote was a metaphor.
Nobody can assume to know, however, why Cassar was picked when former RSL top assistant Robin Fraser, who has MLS head coaching experience, was available.
The fans I've talked to say it's because Cassar was available for "cheap," and they used other colorful adjectives -- most of which cannot be repeated in this column -- why Hansen went with youth (Cassar) instead of experience (Fraser).
RSL's hiring of Cassar is a move that will be debated for some time because so much is at stake right now. Perhaps it was a money issue and maybe it was a player-personnel thing, though I doubt that because Fraser was well liked within the organization.
In my mind, it's more than that. It's about a relatively new organization holding steadfast to the ideals and more important, the culture, that has bound RSL together since Kreis took over as head coach.
Sound familiar? It should; the Utah Jazz have been doing things that way since Frank Layden resigned -- then that team handed over the reins to assistant coach Jerry Sloan.
All Sloan did was turn that team into a perennial playoff contender that competed at two NBA Finals and cultivated several All-Star players as well as two NBA Hall of Famers. In turn, when Sloan resigned the Jazz handed the team over to Tyrone Corbin, Sloan's longtime top assistant.
So to finish my merry-go-round metaphor here, RSL turning the team over to someone who has recently been a part of a club's culture is nothing new; it's been done before. Just as John Ellinger was fired at RSL and in stepped someone internally (Kreis after retiring as player/team captain) so too did Cassar, who was Kreis' top assistant.
Cassar will officially be introduced as RSL's new head coach on Thursday December 19 at a press conference at Rio Tinto Stadium but it's important you know why the club hired internally -- instead of a somewhat distant face like Fraser's.
RSL needed someone who has been with the organization
Though Robin Fraser did start at Real Salt Lake at the same time as Cassar he did leave to become a head coach. That didn't go as well as he would have liked, though nobody outside of the legendary Bob Bradley or Preki has been able to lift Chivas USA to prominence. Fraser gave the job his best shot before he too was fired. Since Fraser, the Goats have had three head coaches, including the notorious and entertaining Chelis. By the same token, Cassar has worked his way up RSL's company ladder, starting as the team's goalkeeper coach in 2007 before being named the reserves-team coach in 2011. He has been with RSL for many years, and Fraser has not. Don't think that didn't play into the club's decision.
RSL has a slew of veteran players
The MLS Cup runners up will undoubtedly have turnover this offseason. Kreis hinted at it before he left and all signs point to Luis Gil moving on to another team -- or possibly Europe. You do have Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Chris Schuler and Alvaro Saborio all gunning for important minutes and a spot on their respective national teams for the World Cup. Though all rank among the highest paid players at RSL it's unlikely they'll leave. It doesn't mean a familiar name won't be traded. Defender Lovel Palmer already was dealt to Chicago for allocation money so the demolition of RSL's back line probably won't take place yet -- though it will after the 2014 season. RSL wants another shot at winning a major title before it looks long and hard at its deep and talented youth movement. Cassar knows the vets well, having been around two-thirds of the starters during two MLS Cup runs.
RSL has a large youth movement
One major reason Cassar was named head coach is that he coached the RSL reserves for the past two seasons -- and the majority of the claret and cobalt's youth movement has cut their teeth with him. That youth movement has made significant progress competing for starting spots. What defender Carlos Salcedo, midfielder Sebastian Velasquez and forwards Joao Plata and Devon Sandoval have done is speed up the time in which Hansen gets out his checkbook to sign them to better deals. Players like Velasquez ($46,500 salary last year) and Sandoval ($35,125, the league minimum) as well as Plata ($60,000) will likely be re-signed. Bringing on Cassar also means that RSL is now firmly committed to making sure that these younger pros will not only continue to be groomed like Gil but also committed to by upper management, sooner rather than later. Enzo Martinez ($120,000) is likely a casualty, however.
RSL is looking to save money right now
When Hansen became RSL's owner the first thing he did was find ways to cut cost. Moves like combining media relations and marketing raised a few eyebrows -- even among journalists least committed to their craft. Other moves made perfect sense, such as the club ridding itself of its commitment to XANGO and signing a $30 million jersey front sponsorship deal with LifeVantage. Though Hansen's reported "low-ball" deal concerning Jason Kreis' contract extension reminded many of an opening bid on a clap board shack when it's a mansion, for Hell sake -- it's what the new owner does best. After all, he brokered real estate deals before he was ever an owner of a sports team. Furthermore, with so many in the youth movement deserving a significant raise this off-season Hansen and GM Garth Lagerwey probably looked at things and decided to play it safe. Cassar was an inexpensive pick that is less risky than Fraser -- who was burned once before as a head coach. Apparently he wasn't a risk Hansen wanted to take.
RSL is a club committed to maintaining its culture
Everywhere you go, much like the Jazz, you are reminded of what Real Salt Lake means to not only the players but the community. Former Chivas USA coach Chelis noted that he couldn't believe that RSL supporters sung just "one song, and one song only, the entire game." (He's referring to "Believe.") That's exactly the point. RSL will maintain its culture, no matter the cost. And if you don't like it, the door is right there. When Fraser left the organization in 2011, it doesn't happen often at RSL -- nor does it with the Jazz. Two-thirds of the RSL coaching staff has been intact since 2010; seven starters in this year's MLS Cup appearance also played in RSL's first MLS Cup in 2008. The club has set high standards -- again, much like the Jazz -- in terms of obtaining the right coaches, players and administrators that fit within its constructs. Many players come and go in the course of a season, but few coaches leave. So you really have to think the real reason for Cassar getting the job is that he remained loyal. Above all, staying put meant more to RSL than any upwardly mobile coach like Fraser who hadn't reached his potential.