Real Salt Lake places faith in Jeff Cassar

PHILADELPHIA — Cohesiveness, stability and technique formed the basis of Real Salt Lake’s success under Jason Kreis. But Kreis decamped to New York City FC in December — and now, the responsibility for maintaining those philosophies and principles falls to his former assistant, Jeff Cassar.

Cassar ascended to the top job with a brief to maintain the team-first ethos and retain the attacking, possession-oriented style RSL have cultivated over the past few seasons. The former Dallas and Miami goalkeeper knows how to do the job — he helped Kreis to establish them on his arrival in 2007. But now, he needs to implement them quickly on his own.

“It’s been crazy,” Cassar said after wrapping up his first SuperDraft in mid-January. “It really has. I got the job and I had to hit the ground — not running, I was sprinting. I was a goalie, so I’m so slow. I’m sprinting slowly. But it’s been exciting and busy. We still have a lot of work to do.”


Jeff Cassar (R) served as Jason Kreis’ assistant at Real Salt Lake (Image: USA Today Sports/Russ Isabella).

RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey has placed an emphasis on building a firm structure around his first-time coach and former Fusion teammate to ease the transition. Former head coaches Paul Dalglish (current PDL champions Austin Aztex) and Daryl Shore (NASL side Fort Lauderdale Strikers) bring experience and expertise. Ex-RSL midfielder Andy Williams supplies considerable knowledge of the club and the league after spending the past two years as a club scout.

Cassar also benefits from the consistency within the playing squad. All of the key figures from last season’s run to MLS Cup return. The established, veteran spine of the team — goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defender Nat Borchers, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales and striker Álvaro Saborío — provides leadership and sets the tone in the locker room. The mix of emerging talents (including recent US selection Luis Gil and promising center back Chris Schuler) and trusted figures (fullbacks Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert, midfielder Ned Grabavoy and forward Robbie Findley feature prominently) ensure the depth and the talent remains.

The consistency within the squad places Cassar in a position to succeed without relieving him of the pressure to deliver immediately. Kreis’ success over the past few seasons created a baseline. Cassar now must find a way to meet or somehow exceed it as he adapts to the top job. Lagerwey said RSL must exhibit some patience in order to allow Cassar to find his way.

“It’s fun. It’s an exciting new challenge,” Lagerwey said. “It’s a new group of guys and a very talented team. But we also have to be patient and understanding that Jeff is a new coach. We have to give him a chance to succeed. When we hit the bumps — which everybody does — we have to support him, be patient and understand that we made him the next head coach for a reason.”

It is now down to Cassar to validate that decision over the long haul.

“I’m very humbled by this opportunity,” Cassar said. “There is pressure to perform because our team is so good. I think with the staff I’ve put together and the way I know this team and this city, we should still keep things going.”


RSL’s Jeff Cassar (L), owner Dell Loy Hansen (C) and Jennifer Cassar (R) pose for a photo after Cassar’s press conference (USA Today Sports/Chris Nicoll).


Sporting KC fans repay Matt Besler in a big way


Image by USA Today Sports.

Less than a week after winning MLS Cup, Sporting KC’s Matt Besler was given the gift of a lifetime — well MANY gifts.

While there are plenty of perks that come with winning your league’s championship, nothing compares to what Besler received from the SKC fans.

Besler and his fiancée Amanda will be married this weekend. In a final gesture of support in 2013, the SKC faithful they bought out their ENTIRE wedding registry.

And should a baby shower ever be in their future, SKC fans will surely jump at the chance to buy some Sporting KC onesies for their bundle of joy.


MLS Cup: Tactical Preview

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Most of the focus in the buildup to MLS Cup lingered on the apparent and substantive differences between the two teams.

It comes straight from the stock identities imposed for the ease of assessment and classification. Real Salt Lake cobbles together long sequences in possession with its vaunted 4-4-2 formation. Sporting Kansas City disrupts its opposition and wins the ball in good areas to spur the attack in its 4-3-3 setup.

Those observations are all well and good, but they fail to capture the nuances ahead in Saturday afternoon’s final. Both teams are complete, well-rounded outfits capable of operating at a high standard in several different ways. They have their strengths and their weaknesses like all outfits, but they perform proficiently in most departments.

By establishing an effective baseline in a variety of scenarios, RSL and Sporting navigated through the postseason and reached the final match of the campaign. They must now figure out how to dictate terms against an equally competent opponent and seize those rare moments when they can exploit the opposition to determine the outcome of a tense, tight affair.

1. Establishing the basic operating principles: The bitterly cold conditions, the potentially slippery surface and the significant stakes at hand require a return to fundamentals first and foremost. Both sides must avoid mistakes (particularly on set pieces, a strength and a worry on both ends) and maintain their composure for the duration of the affair. They must also grapple earnestly to ensure their potential advantages are not squandered for reasons solely within their dominion.

“It’ll definitely be a physical affair,” Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “For Kansas City, all 11 players play really hard and tough. That’s what we’re going to have to try and match. I’m expecting a really physical game.”

2. Breaking Sporting’s relentless pressure: Sporting manifests its robust approach to the game in two particular ways: it fouls intelligently to break up coherent movements through midfield and it presses earnestly to close down space and gain possession in good spots.

RSL must find a way to cope with Sporting’s inevitable desire to interrupt its usual cadence in possession. No MLS team is better than Sporting at stopping the other team from playing through the center of the park. The visitors must move the ball quickly and tidily in order to relieve the pressure, settle into their preferred rhythm and string together the sequences required to create chances from the run of play.

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Feilhaber finds his footing at the right time for Sporting KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Benny Feilhaber thrives when he discerns his role and finds his comfort level with it. It showed with the U.S. national team under Bob Bradley. It showed during his time in Denmark with Aarhus. And it shows now with Sporting Kansas City after a bumpy first season with the club.

Feilhaber said he spent the first half of the campaign trying to adjust to his surroundings and figure out how and where he fit into Peter Vermes’ plans. He allotted some time to make the transition from the more direct approach in New England during the second half of last season to the high-pressure, midfield-intensive system preferred in his new home. He did not bear the burden he carried with the Revs as a highly-touted, ill-fitting acquisition to strengthen the midfield, but he also did not possess the familiarity required to function consistently within his new surroundings, either.


“I definitely didn’t feel at ease at any time,” Feilhaber said before Sporting went through its paces on a frigid Thursday morning. “It was a lot about being as mentally prepared as I could because I didn’t fully get the system. It wasn’t second hand or second nature. There was a lot of thinking during games. I think it was noticeable. It was also something I expected, to take a little bit of time to get used to the system and get used to all of the players around here.”

It took until August for Feilhaber to entrench himself in the side again after rather intermittent usage during the middle third of the season. He started nine consecutive games before making way for the three of the final four fixtures and the first playoff game at New England. He returned to the lineup after Lawrence Olum picked up an injury and prompted Vermes to turn to Feilhaber for a more ambitious approach in central midfield to overturn the first-leg deficit.

The shift from a more conservative midfield three to a more balanced shape – Uri Rosell as the deep-lying conduit, Paulo Nagamura as the industrious, box-to-box plugger and Feilhaber as the technically gifted link with the front three – aligns with Feilhaber’s strengths and permits him to function as a valuable complementary piece. He isn’t expected the carry the load, with creative fulcrum Graham Zusi roving throughout the attacking half from his nominal berth on the right and the influential Nagamura around to reinforce the structure. He locates spaces and mines them efficiently without disrupting the cadence of his teammates. Every so often, he even tracks back into his own end to make a critical tackle or stick with a midfield runner.


“We’ve gone back to the middle ground,” Feilhaber said. “I’ve found my feet a little bit more. Now that I understand the system, it makes all the difference.”

Feilhaber’s contributions during the Eastern Conference championship against Houston – including two match-winning assists and one lung-busting run to snuff out a Dynamo counter – underscore his value. He embraces and understands the demands placed upon him. Now he just needs to meet them once again in order to help his side defeat Real Salt Lake and win MLS Cup on Saturday.

“I’ve settled in,” Feilhaber said. “Peter has given me a few more opportunities. I just have to do as well as I can with the opportunity. Going into the final, it’s the same thing.”

(Images courtesy: US Presswire)


Breakdown of the MLS Conference Finals

imageKansas City earned home field for MLS Cup 2013 (Image: USA Today)

Nineteen teams clubs started the season with a dream of lifting MLS Cup. Only two teams can fulfill that objective when the final takes place on Dec. 7.

Both of them earned their spots in that one-off encounter with their displays this season and their performances this weekend. Sporting Kansas City earned the right to host the league’s showpiece fixture by dispatching its playoff demons against Houston on Saturday. Real Salt Lake secured its trip to Sporting Park on Sunday with a professional victory at Portland.

The holiday-enforced interlude provides plenty of time for both sides to recover from their exertions at the weekend and start their preparations for the task ahead. The end is in sight after a long campaign. Now it is just a matter of determining which side can write the perfect conclusion.

Sporting Kansas City 2 – Houston 1 (Sporting wins series 2-1 on aggregate)

Midfield balance shifted in Sporting’s favor: Houston entered the second leg at Sporting Park without the injured Ricardo Clark (left knee sprain) to cover his usual ground in central midfield. Clark’s absence forced Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear to alter his usual shape to inject an extra man into central midfield. The adjustment could not stop Sporting from exploiting the spaces usually covered by Clark, though. Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi carved out openings with their incessant movement and eventually found a way to use that space profitably. Feilhaber’s work on the winner – including a free run through midfield and a neat clip through the line for Dom Dwyer – highlighted the Dynamo’s limitations on the night and sent Sporting through to MLS Cup on home soil.

Portland 0 – Real Salt Lake 1 (RSL wins series 5-2 on aggregate)

Real Salt Lake dictates terms, quells Timbers: RSL submitted a ruthlessly professional performance by forcing the home side into difficult areas and funneling the play into areas where it could thrive. Portland sent cross after cross – the high, hanging kind, not the low, tempting sort usually preferred – for Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler to clear dutifully because it could not suss out room for its usual combination play in and through the line. It found itself exposed at the back by RSL’s willingness to employ the width of the field on the break to avoid the Timbers’ usually influential midfield three. The emphasis on stretching the play horizontally (plus a poor turnover) created the game’s only goal. RSL saw out the game and the tie from there by adhering to its strengths and showing Portland how to march through a playoff match on home soil.

imageRSL are headed to their second-ever MLS Cup after winning in 2009.


What we learned: MLS conference championships, 1st legs

Images: USA Today

Philosophical differences rose to the forefront as the Eastern and Western Conference championships kicked off this weekend. Pragmatism ruled in Houston. Idealism triumphed in Sandy. And the two matches adhered to those principles as they unfolded.

Houston and Sporting Kansas City leaned on the experience gained in their recent playoff meetings to guide them through this tricky first leg tie. They knew an error or two in the first leg could prove costly given the tattered state of play. And they pursued the match accordingly.

Real Salt Lake and Portland adopted a more ambitious deportment and chased after a result ardently. The endeavor ultimately benefited the home side and left the Timbers with considerable work ahead to turn the tie around in the second leg.

The two disparate approaches ensured some difference in the ties without settling either of them. There is work still left to do for all four teams. And now it is up to all four teams to devise the approach required to advance to MLS Cup in two weeks’ time.

Houston 0 – Sporting Kansas City 0 (second leg: Nov. 23 in Kansas City, Kan.)

Both teams scrap for level pegging: The previous two playoff encounters and the exhaustive toil in midweek inspired a note of caution ahead of the first leg. Both teams entered the tie willing enough to muddle through to keep their chances alive in the second leg. It showed in the approach (rugged as usual from both sides) and the execution (neither team topped 65 percent passing accuracy, according to Opta statistics) during this ugly affair. The final result left both sides relatively satisfied. Now the onus will fall upon both of them to recover over the next two weeks and stump up a bit more incisiveness ahead of the return match.

Real Salt Lake 4 – Portland 2 (second leg: Nov. 24 in Portland, Ore.)

RSL uses tempo and width to tear apart the Timbers: Credit the Claret-and-Cobalt for assessing the landscape in this test against the fatigued visitors and tailoring its game plan accordingly. The usually narrow and tidy work through midfield transformed into a more expansive gambit using the wide areas consistently. RSL bombarded the Timbers penalty area with crosses (14 in the first half, according to Opta statistics) and tried to play behind the line early and often (see: Devon Sandoval’s sweeping third on the counter shortly after halftime) with Robbie Findley a constant menace. Portland buckled under the pressure and succumbed to RSL’s sharp work in every department. The job isn’t done yet, but RSL’s astute work at home – and, most importantly, its assured and furious response to Will Johnson’s opener – offers a firm foothold ahead of the difficult second leg at JELD-WEN Field in a fortnight.


MLS Cup Playoffs: Previewing the Conference finals

imageAfter squeaking past New England, a date with the Dynamo beckons for Sporting KC (Images: USA Today)

The achievement of advancing to the MLS conference championship comes with a significant caveat: there isn’t any time to relish it.

MLS found itself bound by an awkwardly placed FIFA date in the middle of November when it compiled its playoff schedule. Those strictures – complete with potential international duties for for some players next weekend – forced the league to compress the schedule to play the second leg of the conference semifinals in midweek and the first leg of the conference championships at the weekend.

The rather peculiar nature of this tie – compressed time frame at the start, yet two weeks between the first leg and the second leg – could naturally prompt some caution by all four sides still involved. Three of these four sides enter this fray after playing 120 minutes just a few days ago. Houston, in particular, must figure out a way to manage its fifth match in two weeks against a Sporting side capable of exerting high pressure from the start.

At this stage, the fundamental objective involves keeping the tie in play after the first leg to benefit from the fortnight off to recover. Other priorities – including the key questions outlined below and the prospect of taking a commanding first leg lead – fall a bit lower in the pecking order with a MLS Cup berth on the line during the third weekend in November.

Houston – Sporting Kansas City (Saturday, 2:30p.m. ET)


Is there a way for Sporting to exploit Corey Ashe’s absence?: Ashe received a one-match ban for caution accumulation when he picked up his second yellow card of the postseason at New York on Wednesday. His absence leaves Houston short on the left side (Mike Chabala offers the most likely replacement in a straight swap) and offers Sporting with a potential avenue to exploit. Sporting prefers to focus on its defensive duties away from home (and Ashe’s missing influence on the overlap with Brad Davis certainly helps here), but Ashe’s omission could entice some adjustments in Sporting’s midfield. Look for the industrious Graham Zusi to drift over to that side of the field to probe for space and use that channel to create room through the middle and provide service into the penalty area.

One other point worth noting with Ashe out: the onus will fall on Boniek Garcia and Kofi Sarkodie to bear most of the attacking burden on the right side. Garcia’s ability to tuck inside with Sarkodie on the overlap – plus Davis’ willingness to pinch on the far side when he does so – creates structural issues for Sporting defensively. If the Honduran international can locate the ball on a regular basis without suffering the inevitable foul in the middle third, then he could present significant problems for the normally resolute Sporting rearguard.

Real Salt Lake – Portland (Sunday, 9:00p.m. ET)

imageCan Robbie Findley pull apart the Timbers’ defensive shape?: Findley must fill the role once inhabited by former RSL forward Fabián Espíndola and use his time on the field to create operating room for others. Findley’s ability to dart behind the line and peel off into wider areas poses matchup problems for a Timbers side with a dearth of pace and tactical discipline in central defense and a desire to push its fullbacks forward to support the attack. Javier Morales will do his part by sliding out to the left to avoid Diego Chara and Will Johnson, but Findley must provide similar runs on the right to break apart the Timbers’ rearguard. It is then down to the supporting cast to deliver service into the penalty area with the Timbers stretched and Álvaro Saborío (if recovered from the hip flexor knock aggravated on Thursday night) or a midfield runner or two (see: Sebastián Velásquez’s opener against LA Galaxy) to benefit from the chaos created.


Portland vs Seattle. Here. We. Go.


We all love our rivalry games. El Clasico. El Superclasico. Manchester derby. Bayern-Dortmund. Roma-Lazio. Boca-River.

In North America, the best we have is in the Pacific Northwest: Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders. And tonight, for one last time this season, they will battle. This time it’s in the playoffs, with a spot in the conference final on the line. Not only that, but it’s Portland’s first-ever MLS playoff match at home, and they hold a one-goal lead heading into this second leg. Are you getting the shakes just thinking about it?

With so much at stake, it would be amiss to not get you pumped up with an awesome super-fan video. This short film gives an inside look into the Timbers Army, and what goes into making their famous tifos. It also follows a group of 1500 die-hards to a rivalry match in Seattle, one of the loudest places on Earth. It really captures the intensity and importance of the rivalry, and there couldn’t be a better appetizer to tonight’s match!


Seattle Sounders defender Brad Evans could be named sheriff for a day

Just how many write-in votes Seattle Sounders and U.S. national team midfielder/right back Brad Evans got exactly for the King County sheriff election on Tuesday is hard to say. He definitely got one, from Sounders podcaster Aaron Campeau, who tweeted out his picture.

Even if John Urquhart ran unopposed, the unofficial Evans campaign, which seemed to lack exposure, traction and, erm, campaigning, won something in the end.

If the Sounders beat the Portland Timbers tonight and advance to the Western Conference finals, Urquhart will let Evans be sheriff for a day. Or so he said in his own tweet, holding up a Sounders scarf.

Evans, in turn, re-tweeted Urquhart’s tweet with the post-script “this is happening!

So if the Sounders drag out a win from their 2-1 aggregate deficit on Thursday night, be sure not to spit, litter or urinate in public around Brad Evans on Friday.