Sandy, UT (SportsNetwork.com) - For the first time since 2008, Real Salt Lake will begin the season with someone other than Jason Kreis at the helm.
Real Salt Lake has been the model of consistency in MLS since Kreis took over for John Ellinger in May 2007, leading the club to an MLS Cup title in 2009 as well as an appearance in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final.
But when the former club captain bolted for the head coaching vacancy at New York City FC just three days after suffering defeat to Sporting Kansas City in last season's MLS Cup, the Claret and Cobalt were left with a major void to fill.
Real Salt Lake opted to promote Jeff Cassar, its longtime goalkeeper coach, to the position, making the 40-year-old just the third head coach in the club's nine-year history.
"We're very excited for Jeff to become the third head coach in Real Salt Lake history," said RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen. "Jeff's been a crucial member of the RSL Family since 2007. His terrific leadership abilities, strong character and understanding of our locker room, tactics and overarching club culture will allow us to continue to compete for trophies in 2014 and beyond."
Cassar will have some big shoes to fill as he replaces a head coach that led his team to the postseason in each of his six full seasons with the club.
But while this is Cassar's first job as a head coach, he is well-versed in the Real Salt Lake way. He is familiar with the long-term plan of the club and understands the importance of the player development standards instituted by the previous regime.
Cassar also will have a knowledgeable support staff around him consisting of former RSL midfielder Andy Williams.
Like Cassar, Williams, a longtime RSL midfielder who sits second on the club's all-time list for most appearances, was promoted in-house, becoming an assistant coach after serving as head scout for the Claret and Cobalt. He will be joined by Daryl Shore, Paul Dalglish and Craig Waibel on the RSL bench.
Dalglish, the son of legendary Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, has gained valuable management experience through his time with the USL Premier Development League's Austin Aztex, while Waibel, a longtime MLS defender, arrives at RSL having spent 2012 as an assistant coach at the University of Washington.
Real Salt Lake also has the benefit of continuity as there has been very little turnover to a roster that nearly yielded an MLS Cup title.
There is leadership at the back in goalkeeper Nick Rimando and defenders Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert, but it is central midfielder and club captain Kyle Beckerman that makes RSL tick. His tireless work rate and supreme passing ability helps Salt Lake retain possession and spring the attack for the likes of Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley to put the opposing defenses under pressure.
And last season, youngsters like Luis Gil (20 years old), Sebastian Velasquez (22), Devon Sandoval (22) and Carlos Salcedo (20) featured in prominent roles, so they would figure to improve with another year of experience under their belts.
But while there is reason for optimism in Salt Lake this season, don't be surprised to see the club struggle out of the gate. An acclimation period for Cassar should be expected, and with RSL opening the campaign with road matches at the Los Angeles Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes and Kansas City as well as home tilts against L.A. and a revamped Toronto FC side, the Claret and Cobalt may find themselves behind the eight ball very early on in the season.
ADDITIONS: Luke Mulholland (M).
LOSSES: Yordany Alvarez (M), Lovel Palmer (M).
OUTLOOK: Real Salt Lake is something of an unknown quantity heading into 2014. It's a team that made it all the way to MLS Cup, but the argument could be made that RSL overachieved last season given the prominent role played by some of the club's budding talent. It should all come down to Cassar and his ability to keep the ball rolling. If he can maintain some of the momentum from last season, then RSL will be a contender. If not, the Claret and Cobalt may miss out on the postseason for the first time since 2007.