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The MLS Grinder: Bring Up The Body

Written by Will Parchman

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“Rafe asks him, could the king’s freedom be obtained, sir, with more economy of means? Less bloodshed?

Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, one you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”

-Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring Up The Bodies’

I imagine this scene tinged with hues of this kind of kingly power normalized by the midwestern airspace that owned it. Like decrees issued from a man who’d ruled long enough to know his power was complete. Jason Kreis. Who’d question? And yet this man emblematic of Salt Lake City is putting down is crimson scarf for big lights, big money. We nod. And the Salt Lake shrugged and wondered who’d question? We love him. He is going because we made him. And yet who can we elevate in his stead?

Cassar. Of course it was Cassar.

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I don’t think most of us wondered how’d Jeff Cassar, The Man Who Would Be King, would consume those few steps to the throne. Those who are made cannot be unmade, and Cassar was forged in a way that RSL would make its men. By tempered steel. By the process.

By The Process.

Real Salt Lake is perhaps more beholden by this march than any other program in MLS. The process. We wonder what effect that inexorable slog in 2009 had on this franchise, and I don’t think you can overestimate its effects. Incomparable unity in the face of a wall spiraling upward, its frozen fissures cracking and groaning as RSL’s collective body figured out a way up its impossibly smooth face. Jeff Cassar, for all his secondary qualities, was fixing the crampons and shoeing the toeholds. We wonder why RSL is that way it is in 2014, and we look back those many years for its ability to avoid the falling braids of the mountainside. We exist, and thus we are.

Did you really believe RSL would be under Cassar as it was under Kreis? Answer honestly. You may have thought it would retain a kernel while exercising some modicum of MLS in years past. That’s smart money. MLS does not give you reason to believe in technicians in succession. So Cassar in Kreis’s shadow is a way of saying a man in the way.

And yet here we are. You need not have believed in Jeff Cassar, but he has become that which the small of your process figured he wouldn’t be. Kreis’s successor. Worthy.

You know Kreis’s tactics in the same way you know MLS. The diamond. That which is sure. Kreis planted Kyle Beckerman deep like he might plant a flag, orbiting the entirety of his game plan around Beckerman’s ability to be The Man. Here’s how Beckerman works on the club level: you defer to him. You assume he can see things nobody else can, and you allow him to be the metronome. His success is in essence that he has no utterable weakness. He has no flank. He is on the left as he is on the right, and you list in one direction as he picks on the other. It’s remarkable how he watches games unfold. It’s as though he’s looking at it as you are, on film, with a full screen at his disposal. But you know he’s got the whole field splayed in front of his and you wonder.

One of RSL’s most complete games under Kreis last year was a 4-0 win over Columbus. I use it just to illustrate Beckerman’s ability under Kreis, because it’s a perfect elucidator.

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No weak spots. You find them, I send you money.

So we talk about Javier Morales, who’s been consistently one of the league’s only real No. 10′s. We talk about Javi. You release him like a ball of energy into the upper regions in ways you can’t with most other players, who split back and recoil because they aren’t familiar with plunging into space and yet still receiving passes. And we look at Kreis’s desire to have a real plunging central midfielder (like Luis Gil) and a real pair of hardy central defenders who know each other and wingers comfortable in space. It makes sense because you know the man. He’s sensible because his men allow him to be.

Look at last August’s numbers versus Portland in August.

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And then the 2013 playoffs, in which RSL bumped off Portland.

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And finally Saturday’s shock 1-0 RSL win over Portland.

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There are differences here, but RSL’s influence is sliding and yet the results are not. Cassar is, as though we expected it to be otherwise, a Jason Kreis in miniature. He is not the same, but he’s similar. If we are to learn anything from the Kreis model of coaching, it is this. And Cassar knows it better than anyone, and he’s made himself in Kreis’s image. No artifice. Your level of performance is never commiserate with your result and ultimately that you’re only as important as your midfield. And Kyle Beckerman is a gold doubloon in this league. Cassar has not changed the formula. I can hardly see the RSL faithful gnashing their collective teeth at this.

In all reality RSL had no business beating Portland over the weekend. You look at the two sides and you know which you’d rather win. Portland has the panache. RSL is slapped together in a way that makes sense in the same way a Pierogi makes sense. A golden hash with an odd assortment of food crammed inside with your taste buds forced to make the pronouncement upon the bite. Is is Wingert or Garcia or Beckerman on first taste? Does it matter?

As you know, Beckerman is the lingua franca of this team. Without Beckerman, none of it matters. But what else? I think Morales’ tune is important but overplayed. With Beckerman spraying, RSL has more leeway with the No. 10 than anyone in the league. There is no better holding midfielder in MLS, and as an unabashed proponent of Osvaldo Alonso I don’t say that lightly. Beckerman makes Morales look better than he is. It’s a fact.

Where RSL is benefitting more than anyone else right now is on the left flank. The entire team is listing to that side like a overrun tanker taking on water. This from the weekend’s Portland victory is beautiful.

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I’ve talked a lot about the league’s woes at left back, and I don’t need to rehash all of them here. But what I will touch on is this: at one point Todd Dunivant was the league’s left back of record. Now, it’s Chris Wingert. He’s enabled Cassar a silver bullet here, something nearly the entire league does not have – a livewire at left back that can push right midfielders otherwise not used to legitimate threats on their flank.

Jack Jewsbury’s heat map was considerably pushed back thanks largely in part to Wingert’s influence.

And yet here’s all that matters. From the right side, as if Kreis’s ghost was saying “possession metrics and flanks and whatever be damned, goals come from plays.” And so it comes from the right side, after the left had been so abused. Caverns of space.

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So Sebastian Velasquez turns inside for Ned Grabavoy, who spins Darlington Nagbe (he does have weaknesses!) and whips off a shot Ricketts probably should’ve gotten a paw on. Here we are again. So much space.

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Great. RSL does a thing, expects you to establish its life on that count and then wins in a quite improbable, impersonal manner in the other direction. It’s so Kreis you want to hug Cassar. You paid attention.

Forward we go. You expect Cassar to be his own man, and he is. The diamond has its own shape, and its flanks tend to settle in their own unique way. But the tips are there, and Beckerman is there, and so there is Javi, and boy that sure looks like Nick Rimando, the best keeper in MLS, and that back line sure seems to get forward in that similar kind of way. And you think that RSL looks more like a family than ever, and Cassar or Kreis or whoever else begins to seem immaterial. Can anyone stop RSL? Seems to matter less and less who’s behind the wheel. If not the league’s best coach, than who else?

Soccer in Canada is failing

Martin Rennie failed in Vancouver for a number of reasons, none of them particularly convincing. He didn’t play young kids… but he did. He experimented with positional placements… but none particularly galling. He didn’t succeed… but he didn’t exactly fall on his face, either. It all looked a bit strange. If only he could’ve dialed down his over-use of defensive midfielders, we’d have all been living harmoniously into 2014.

So anyway, all that to say that Rennie has a legitimate alleyway into the discussion that we shouldn’t ignore. Here, he says that the trouble with Canadian soccer is that it doesn’t trust private enterprise. To boil it down, he says essentially that Canadian clubs and coaches don’t have enough skin in the game – the failure of certain ventures costs little, therefore the price means little to its organizers. Which, on the club level, fair enough.

But the thing about Canada is the country’s created a bottleneck at the top. While club soccer struggles with its organization, professionalized clubs (all three of them) value teenaged, pre-college kids at a higher clip than American ones do. So here we look at Rennie sort of like a fox in this instance. And you wonder when he’ll get his next shot.

Young’uns unite

You should know by now that I’m overly protective of the league’s young players. MLS doesn’t give a proportionate enough shout to its youth players, which tends to choke off a bit of the excitement level where root-level invested fans are concerned (which, lets be honest, is the vast majority of MLS’s fan base). The league is not wholly failing its younger players, but it’s not doing them a service, either.

So here we are. Kekuta Manneh. Thus begins my 2014 Twitter thrust: #playyourkids.

 

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3 Comments
  • UtahAlumnus

    IF YOU BELIEVE THEN JUST STAND UP ON YOUR FEET
    AND SHOUT IT LOUD “REAL!”
    HERE AT THE RIOT THE BATTLE HYMN’S BEGUN.
    WE’RE HERE FOR RSL!

  • Poqui

    Dear Will, nice article on RSL; but please stop breaking down RSL’s secrets for the other teams to exploit. :-) The diamond midfield is a formidable weapon when you have the right personnel.

  • Nussdorfer AC

    What do you mean by saying at the club level you “demure” to Kyle Beckerman?

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