Ray Giacoletti was no Rick Majerus. Andrew Johnson wasn’t Abraham Lincoln. Colin Hanks is no Tom Hanks.
Sometimes it stinks being the guy after The Guy.
As Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar nears the end of his second MLS season, hoping to reach the station before the playoff train leaves, critics lurk. The insurrection got loud in August when RSL experienced a 1-4 stretch. Hashtags #FireCassar and #CassarOut appeared on Twitter. Curiously, Cassar “favorited” one tweet that said, “Apathy has set in. You are awful and I want you to just go away. Forever.”
Score one for Cassar — he has a sense of humor. He’ll need it. He shaved his head last year after qualifying for the postseason but barely had time to grow it back before the trouble began.
Having won three of his last four matches, Cassar has deflected some of the criticism. But if his team misses the playoffs, the anger will rise. Real has made the postseason the last seven years. Fans are spoiled and impatient. In some cases, they’re also unrealistic.
Cassar is in just his second season, a poor one by RSL standards. Still, Giacoletti got three years as Utah’s basketball coach, and his successor, Jim Boylen, got four. Johnson had four years as president before failing to get the nomination in 1868. (He was also impeached but acquitted.) Colin Hanks is an actor, but mostly just a celebrity’s son.
Version B often isn’t better than Version A.
Major League Soccer is moving in a direction that worries smaller franchises, as wealthy teams sign the biggest stars. Players like Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando became national team fixtures after they arrived in Salt Lake. Neither is a celebrity like Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders) or Steven Gerrard (L.A. Galaxy). Real’s long-term goal is to build through transactions, but largely via the Monarchs and its sports academy.
While it has nice young players such as Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia, the team recently added international veteran Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez — an especially intriguing acquisition. But stocking up on high-end international talent probably won’t be the norm.
And building the team to its former level won’t be overnight.
Cassar hasn’t fared as well as his predecessor, Jason Kreis, who took Real to two MLS Cup finals. Cassar got as far as the Western Conference semifinals in his rookie year. But a 5-0 humiliation by Los Angeles made the offseason seem tedious.
Now RSL needs help from other teams. With three league matches remaining, and a three-point deficit in the standings, it still has a chance. Making the playoffs would render it an easy call on Cassar: Don’t close the kitchen while the food’s still cooking.
Though RSL is used to winning, it has been remaking itself since Kreis departed for New York after the 2013 season. That’s not enough time to know if Cassar can move the meter. Whether Real’s record alone is grounds for termination is only one consideration. Another is off-the-field losing. General manager Garth Lagerwey left for a job with the Seattle Sounders, while president Bill Manning departed in August after his contract expired. Owner Dell Loy Hansen said it was a “restructuring” to move the team into the future.
Considering the team traded all-time scoring leader Alvaro Saborio in July, and lost other key veterans in the last two years, that’s not entirely Cassar’s fault. The rest is the team’s blame for an uneven season that never found a groove. RSL is 18th of 20 teams in goals and 15th in goal differential, with the second-fewest points in the West.
But it also has promise. Nobody saw RSL’s 2009 championship coming. “El Burrito” has a chance to be the team’s big enchilada. Firing Cassar, whether or not he makes the playoffs, would be exiting the freeway a stop too soon. In time, he might even become a favorite.
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