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SANDY — Within a couple hours of Real Salt Lake’s worst playoff loss in team history Nov. 9, the team retired to its hotel contemplating its elimination from the MLS Cup playoffs following a 5-0 loss to the L.A. Galaxy.
It wouldn’t be easy getting over the embarrassing defeat. For defender Tony Beltran, it would take a little room service, a sleepless night and a little perspective the next morning.
“The funny thing is, the next morning the sun came up and life went on,” Beltran said. “It’s difficult. It was embarrassing, and it was a horrid thing, but I think the hardest part is that there is not another game next week. We have to wait until March next year to play another meaningful game in competition. It’ll be a different offseason in that perspective. It’ll be tough.”
RSL players gathered one final time in 2014 on Wednesday, finishing out a few exit interviews with the front office and receiving a physical exam from team doctors in Sandy. The players, disappointed in their early playoff exit, were planning out offseasons of uncertainty, rest and vacation time.
Most of the coaching staff had already scattered to scout college players during the week’s conference championships before the NCAA tournament kicks off next week.
But for RSL head coach Jeff Cassar, the loss still sat with him and provided motivation to get better before his second year in charge at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to get over that type of a game,” Cassar said. “It’s only going to spur myself, my staff and the team to get better in every area.
“It’s a shame that we’re concentrating on that 90-minute performance because I think there are so many positives from this season. But that game in particular really stings.”
In his first season in charge of the club and his first year as a head coach in Major League Soccer, Cassar brought RSL to its seventh-straight postseason and matched the regular-season total of 56 points (15-8-11) of predecessor Jason Kreis’ final year in Sandy.
But Cassar gave much of the credit to the players, including a stable group of core veterans, and the team’s front office, including general manager Garth Lagerwey.
This year may be different in terms of continuity. RSL will have several difficult decisions to make on player contracts with defenders Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert, and midfielder Cole Grossman are among those who are out of contract, and Lagerwey’s own deal only runs through Dec. 30.
No offseason in MLS is completely free of change and shake-ups, but RSL’s 2014-15 break will likely face a significant overhaul.
“We’re in a unique situation this year, with the expansion draft, the (collective bargaining agreement) and not knowing where everything will stand with the roster size, and every team in the league will have to change a little bit with this expansion draft,” Cassar said. “It’s part of it; it’s the world we live in. It’s not something I want, but it is what it is. We have a lot of talent on this team, and where one door closes, one door opens for some of them.”
I don't think I'm ever going to get over that type of a game. It's only going to spur myself, my staff and the team to get better in every area. It's a shame that we're concentrating on that 90-minute performance because I think there are so many positives from this season. But that game in particular really stings.
–RSL head coach Jeff Cassar
RSL’s first opportunity to change approaches quickly with the Nov. 19 dispersal draft for all Chivas USA players. The 2005 expansion partner of RSL has formally disbanded, and the team will be replaced by a third outfit in Los Angeles in 2016. Club standout Erick “Cubo” Torres’ rights aren’t up for grabs, but standouts like goalkeeper Dan Kennedy and World Cup veteran Oswaldo Minda will be placed into a lottery for the 20 MLS teams to begin picking up their current and expiring contracts.
FC Dallas owns the first pick in that draft, followed by New York City FC and Sporting Kansas City. RSL will pick 10th.
After that, the team is already preparing for two expansion drafts for newcomers Orlando City SC and NYC FC, the latter of which is coached by RSL legend Kreis. The Salt Lake side expects Kreis and NYC FC president Claudio Reyna to select at least one RSL player in the draft, and the team could lose up to two players during the expansion draft.
RSL, like every team in the league, can protect 11 players in the expansion draft, and one more after Orlando or NYC select one. Homegrown players like Jordan Allen and Justen Glad cannot be selected by either expansion team, according to MLS rules.
RSL will also see the return to the Western Conference of the Houston Dynamo, which moved to the East in 2011, and Sporting Kansas City, which headed eastward as the Kansas City Wizards in 2005. With only five current playoff spots from each conference, that adds two more regular playoff qualifiers to a field fighting for the five slots held this year by Seattle, L.A., Salt Lake, Dallas and Vancouver.
Add to it the soon-to-expire CBA between MLS and the players’ union, and Cassar, Lagerwey and RSL’s front office are doing the best they can within a framework that has a lot of uncertainties.
“Every year, there are changes made,” Cassar said. “This year, there need to be changes, and now there are forced changes making it more difficult. We have to protect some players, but we have a team of 30 and we value every single one of them. We can only protect 11, whether for future reasons or other reasons. They are never easy (decisions).”