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DJ: Why is RSL changing coaches now?

DJ: Why is RSL changing coaches now? (File photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) RSL Head Coach Jeff Cassar is out.

Why now?

Why fire the coach three games into the season? Why fire the coach three games into a three year contract? Sure, only the first year was guaranteed, but still wasn’t pre-season just wasted?

No one is commenting, in detail, on the record. Certainly not GM Craig Waibel who has his reasons, but in the face of direct questioning, doesn’t want to unpack the bags. I believe that is because several of the bags don’t belong to him and airing other people’s laundry will distract from the task at hand, which is to win before the losing swallows up another person’s career.

Any fair analysis has to go back to Cassar’s hiring, because from the very beginning I believe he had his doubters in the club and around the league. He and former RSL assistant and Chivas’ Head Coach Robin Fraser were two strong candidates. I think several key people wanted Fraser, but most of RSL’s high-profile veteran players wanted the continuity Cassar would provide as a long-time member of Jason Kreis’ staff. RSL was coming off of a heart-breaking MLS Cup loss in Kansas City on penalties and continuity was viewed as a plus. In addition, Cassar didn’t have head coaching experience and carried a cheaper price tag than Fraser. He got the job, but before the first game, I believe there was some doubt about his abilities. In a sport where every line-up, every substitution and every formation is questioned, winning big is a coaches’ only defense. For Cassar, results were usually a mixed bag, never bad enough to be fired, never good enough to lock him in for the long term.

The 2014 season was largely successful until the Galaxy knocked RSL out of the post-season with a 5-0 thrashing. Craig Waibel replaced Garth Lagerwey in that off-season and RSL missed the playoffs after an injury plagued 2015 season. I thought Cassar might be done then, but RSL had to play six different center backs, the club was bringing back Yura Movsisyian to provide some scoring punch and Cassar had a year left on his deal. A positive and likeable guy, those traits probably helped Cassar survive for another year.

RSL started very well in 2016 but again rumors of Cassar’s demise swirled as the team settled for several draws at home in the summer. A strong August quieted the talk and taking seven of nine points from the Rapids, FC Dallas and the Galaxy launched contract talks. As soon as they started making progress on the new deal, the team started stumbling, but again there were injuries and the easy explanation of Burrito Martinez and Javier Morales on the way out. I believe there were a few reservations, but in the clutch the players backed Cassar again. I have been told multiple times, sometimes with a tone of disbelief, young players the fans clamored for, but Jeff kept on the bench, were completely in the coach’s corner in season ending meetings.

Cassar spent the off-season working on a new coaching license, presumably upgrading his skills. He won’t go there, but I believe Craig Waibel thinks the 2017 team is much better than the 2016 team. I don’t think Waibel likes the way the team has prepared in the pre-season and obviously everyone is frustrated with a single goal in 270 minutes, a 0-2-1 record and being tied for last place in the west with a single point.

Along the way, young defensive players developed, but Cassar, a former goalkeeper, didn’t have the same success with attacking players. Olmes Garcia scored five goals in his rookie season under Jason Kreis, but regressed as a goal scorer in each of the next three seasons. Devon Sandoval had a few moments and so did Sebastian Jaime, but nothing more. Joao Plata scored 13 goals in 26 matches in 2014, but just 13 goals in 50 matches since the formation change. RSL fans love Jordan Allen but he hasn’t been able to lock down a position. Injuries have certainly been a factor, but even here Cassar’s training methods are questioned. Does he work the players enough to get them fit, or does he baby them (scarred no doubt by Plata’s broken foot in 2015 pre-season training).

Everything can be debated. Cassar can be criticized or defended depending on your mood, but it is pro sports, and bottom line, RSL hasn’t won in the post-season since Kreis departed.

The surprise in Cassar’s firing, to me, is that RSL Owner Dell Loy Hansen is going to pay a coach not to coach. He has changed his President, GM and Coach without firing any of them. All of the contracts were allowed to expire. Does this mean as he gains experience as an owner he is prioritizing winning over making money? He isn’t firing Cassar, or signing off on firing Cassar, because interest is waning. Tickets, signage, sponsorships and suites are priced and sold aggressively. I was told after multiple games last year that RSL had broken revenue records with big crowds paying top dollar. The way MLS teams are acquiring foreign talent the financial growth seems critical. RSL’s new Executive Club on the east side should guarantee that those revenue records are broken again this year, so I don’t think this is a reactionary move because interest is waning.

Professional sports, is about hope. Whether you are talking about the Jazz or RSL, get to the top four in the west, win a little in the post-season and if you get the trophy great. But if you don’t grab that brass ring you are close enough everyone knows you might get it next year, or the year after. There isn’t enough hope these days so RSL is making a change.

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