SALT LAKE CITY — In the 13 years Real Salt Lake has been a franchise, a couple of things have been obvious.
First, that small-market teams can be competitive and even win championships.
Second, they might want to hire a grump to get back to where they once were.
Monday afternoon, Utah’s MLS team fired coach Jeff Cassar, the nicest, most decent man since, well, John Ellinger. The latter was Real’s first coach, hired by the club for its first season in 2005 and fired 71 games later, in 2007. It was a shame he had to go. But the team was a disaster, having gone 0-4-1 to start the season, which followed a 10-13-9 year.
Ellinger’s career record in Salt Lake: 16-39-16.
So it was out with the nice guy and in with Jason Kreis, a taciturn and tense perfectionist who turned the franchise around, winning one championship and taking the team to an MLS Cup title match before leaving for New York. He was several things Ellinger wasn’t: distant and semi-defensive with the media; short with those who didn’t know the game well; and unsmiling in his responses.
He tended to lead into what he considered ignorant questions by saying, “Anyone who knows anything about soccer ”
Kreis was fine with the players and management, and it showed in his record. His overall mark of 112-85-64 was notably better than Cassar’s 38-37-30 mark.
Kreis had plenty of attitude, and Real Salt Lake’s impatient and often unrealistic fan base loved him for it. Aside from winning, he looked good doing it. On bad-weather days he wore a sleek raincoat over his tailored suit and seven-fold silk neckties.
Then there’s Cassar, a regular guy in an irregular business. In the season opener he manned the sideline in a ‘70s-style turtleneck.
“My wife dressed me today,” he sheepishly explained.
Unlike Kreis, Cassar was patient and accommodating, someone you’d want in your PTA parents’ group. Yet he parted ways with iconic Javier Morales in the off-season, and Juan Manuel Martinez left under the explanation of homesickness.
Regardless, Cassar’s firing was a necessary move. Progress was indiscernible, at least in the standings. Real has scored one goal and has one draw in three matches this year. Cassar went the last two months of last season without winning and his team scored only three goals in its last seven games.
If surprising to Cassar, it shouldn’t have been. Despite getting a reprieve last fall, when Real made the playoffs, he was on notice with a single-year contract. Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen isn’t used to losing in anything, and not one to wait for things to sort themselves out.
He didn’t buy out original owner Dave Checketts to finish in second place.
But it’s not just a Hansen thing that caused the change. A dozen other coaches have been fired midseason from MLS teams since 2012. Cassar drew harsh criticism from the demanding and vocal part of the fan base. An online Deseret News poll on opening day had 68 percent saying it was the “wrong move” to keep Cassar.
Despite pressure both last season and this, Cassar maintained an air of earnest likability. Offseason improvements that included the addition of Slovakian Albert Rusnak, and plans to score earlier in matches, yielded little. A respectable 0-0 draw on opening day gave way to a 2-0 loss at Chicago, followed by a 2-1 home loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Losing at home is one thing, but losing to Real’s nemesis was enough to tip the scales.
Some are saying the job should go to interim coach Daryl Shore, or former New York Red Bulls coach Mike Petke, currently coach of the Real Monarchs. Whomever it is, history has shown Real has done better with testy and stone-faced coaches than with those you want in your bowling league. Besides, almost everyone’s temperament gets better once the winning begins.