Self-reflective RSL returning to its roots after poor 2015 showing

Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

RSL lost its identity in 2015, missing the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2007. Scott French analyzes how Jeff Cassar has his team unbeaten thus far in 2016.

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Real Salt Lake lost its swagger last year, when a switch of systems and some key departures sent the MLS powerhouse to ninth-place in the Western Conference. There was bound to be a transition, but “mistakes” in implementing the new emphasis and struggles replacing veteran contributors made for a much steeper curve, and RSL missed the postseason for the first time since 2007, finishing some 10 points out of a playoff spot.

Therein is the starting point for the club's superb start to this season. RSL is one of two unbeaten teams in Major League Soccer, securing five points in three road games - four of those in matches inflicting most arduous circumstances.

RSL's mission: to reclaim their spot among American soccer's elite. They've built a pretty good foundation to do so in their first four games.

“It's a great start to the season,” veteran right back Tony Beltran told FourFourTwo. “I don't want to go so far as to say everything is completely back on track, because it's only four games out of 34, and the season in MLS is very long. But I'm very happy with the way we've started the season.”

Kyle Beckerman agrees.

“It's a really good vibe around here,” RSL's captain noted. “We feel like we've been doing some good things, and we got a little but of an identity about us ... It's still early, to be sure, but I think this is a great start, for sure.

“It looks like we're on the right track. Of course, we need to keep improving, like any team does.”

What went wrong in 2015?

RSL went off track last season, Jeff Cassar's second in charge following Jason Kreis' departure to become New York City FC's first manager. The Utahns had been one of MLS' most consistently grand sides, using enticingly flowing soccer to average 15.6 wins, 55.6 points and a plus-15 goal differential in the five seasons following their unexpected run to the 2009 MLS Cup title.

Cassar, inheriting a deep and talented roster built by Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey, won 15 games in his first season, then started retooling the team last year. Lagerwey left to become the Seattle Sounders' GM, with former MLS defender Craig Waibel stepping in, and several core veterans -- Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Ned Grabavoy and Robbie Findley -- departed during the offseason, with club career goals leader Alvaro Saborio heading to D.C. United in a trade last July.

Cassar took Real Salt Lake out of its patented 4-4-2 diamond formation and implemented a 4-3-3; a move made, he said, to “recognize where our roster was [and] where we wanted to go in the future.”

It didn't take. RSL went 11-15-8.

“It [wasn't] just one or two things. It was a collective thing,” Cassar explained. “Obviously, that started with me. I changed the formation and the way we played, and that's already going to cause inconsistency in both attacking and defending. Where I didn't do a good job last year was in not focusing on one area, trying to master that, and then keep improving off of that. I tried to work on the defensive side, the offensive side, the everything side, and I don't think it was fair to the players.”

The players certainly were discouraged.

“It was a frustrating time with Salt Lake, because we made some mistakes,” Beckerman, who has been with RSL since 2007, said during MLS media roundtable in January. “It was just tough from being a team that was constantly competing for, you know, pretty much everything -- we'd been in the Supporters' Shield talk and then we'd make the playoffs -- and then all of a sudden kind of abandon that and then not get the results.”

Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Cassar is fixing what once wasn't broken. (Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports)

The new alignment felt foreign. They never fully wrapped their heads around it.

“Last year was a bit of a flux year for RSL,” Beltran said. “We had lost some key contributors in the offseason, and then throughout the year, with the change of formation, we really struggled to find an identity, to figure out how we wanted to play and what kind of team we were. I think that was a big focal point in this offseason and in the preseason, to really fine-tune the 4-3-3 and figure out how we want to play and how we want to impose our style on our opponent.”

Last year was a bit of a flux year for RSL."

- Tony Beltran

That started with Cassar, who recognized that he needed to grow.

“He didn't like last year, either -- you know, nobody did -- and so he put himself to work and wanted to do anything possible to better this team,” Beckerman said. “And he looked at himself first, which is tough to do sometimes, but he looked at himself and said, 'How can I get better?' And went about in the offseason trying to do exactly that.

“He took some classes and learned a lot, from these professional courses [that U.S. Soccer has mandated for MLS coaches]. I think that's really helped him, and he's learned a lot from that.”

Re-tooling for 2016

Cassar, and his staff, became more detail-oriented, working on fixing the parts rather than the whole and providing players, he said, “with a clearer message and clearer goals.”

The roster was strengthened with the returns of two RSL veterans -- forward Yura Movsisyan, on loan from Spartak Moscow, and Wingert, on waivers from NYCFC in early February -- and the acquisition of Nigerian defensive midfielder Sunday Stephen Obayan, who goes by, simply, “Sunny.” As the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series with UANL Tigres began in late February, preseason preparations intensified and things started to click.

“We had a really good offseason plan this year,” said Cassar, a former MLS goalkeeper who has been with the club since 2007. “We're much more focused on what we need to accomplish, and that started in preseason.

“We started off with how we're going to defend. We knew we had a lot of very good attacking options, but we wanted to make sure the team was focused on the defensive end first and then keep building.”

The Tigres series amped the group's competitiveness, and “what was interesting,” Cassar said, “was the better we defended led to more attacking chances for us.”

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A road win over SKC showed grit. (Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)

“That series just showed we can put a lot of effort and focus on the defensive end and we were going to be rewarded what we do with the ball in our attack,” he said. “That series, even though we did lose, gave us a lot of confidence in what we can be able to do.”

It's led to a 2-0-2 start, with 2-2 road draws in the league opener against Orlando City SC -- MLS's other unbeaten -- and two weeks later at reigning MLS Cup champion Portland sandwiched around a 2-1 home victory over Seattle. They conceded twice deep into stoppage at Orlando while playing with 10 men and gave up two late goals to Portland after losing Beckerman and Jamison Olave to red cards.

That set the scene for last weekend's statement-making victory at Sporting Kansas City, in which suspension and injury deprived RSL of five starters, including playmaker Javier Morales, and 10 first-team players.

“To see them out there and the way they played and our organization and the chances we created, it was inspiring to see,” said Beckerman, who watched on television. “You're sitting there nervous with every touch, and then for them to get the three points, it was just awesome.”

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Joao Plata: Key man for RSL. (Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)

The critical figure so far is Joao Plata, a fleet Ecuadorian attacker who arrived from Toronto FC in 2013 and plays to the left of Movsisyan. He was MLS's Player of the Month after scoring three goals with two assists -- plus another goal against Tigres, and he had an assist in K.C. -- but the numbers barely hint at the electricity of his game.

“He's something else,” Beckerman said. “The way he's able to kind of, like, open his body and then cut this ball back post in the air, it's pretty incredible.”

Plata scored 13 league goals for RSL in 2014 but netted just four last year, and Beckerman thinks “the transition of our formation and different things last year kind of held him back.” Now he's helping define a system that the club hopes can be as iconic as their diamond used to be.

It's a huge plus on the road, Beckerman says, and RSL plays nine of their first 13 MLS games away, owing to a Rio Tinto Stadium field renovation scheduled for all of May and the first half of June.

“So far it's really given us something to kind of lean on on the road,” Beckerman said. “In the diamond, it's a bit tough when you go on the road and you're not on the ball as much as you are maybe at home. You do a lot of chasing. And in the 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, whatever you want to call it, it really makes the role of each player, of the team, easier to understand.

“It's able to put people in better positions right at the start, and it's really helped us become tougher to break down and enabled us to stay organized and kind of play counter at times. As well when you're under [heavy pressure], you're able to weather storms a little bit.”

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