The writing was on the wall for Jeff Cassar as soon as Mike Petke was hired as the head coach of Real Salt Lake’s USL team. The Utah side had just concluded a disappointing campaign, contemplating which direction to take going forward. Discussions were held over Cassar’s future, with the 43-year-old ultimately kept on. But he was on a leash.
That leash only stretched as far as three games into the 2017 season though, with Cassar dismissed as Real Salt Lake’s head coach following a draw and two disappointing defeats to start the campaign. The decision had been a long time coming, but coming so early in the year it made clear that Cassar stood little chance of reversing a call that already been made, particularly with the shadow of former New York Red Bulls boss Petke cast over him.
“At the conclusion of last season, we felt that while we were disappointed in the end result, Jeff had done enough to earn another shot to lead the team in the 2017 campaign,” RSL general manager Craig Waibel explained in a statement. “We have a high sense of urgency for progress this season, and have made many off-season changes towards that endeavour.
“So, while these decisions are always difficult, we, as an organisation, felt that it was necessary to make the change in our head coaching position now. The process for a hiring new head coach to lead the club has already begun. We will work quickly and diligently to ensure that we find the right leader that shares our values, passion, commitment and vision.”
The obvious choice
The right leader, as Waibel puts it, is right under their nose. Petke has yet to be named Cassar’s replacement, with some suggesting former Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid should be in the frame, but it’s surely only a matter of time until the former defender gets the call. Already part of the Real Salt Lake organisation, his appointment would be a straightforward, seamless and, above all, sensible one.
“I’m 41 years old. There’s only two coaching jobs in New York,” Petke explained upon his appointment as the head coach of RSL’s USL side, Real Monarchs, last year. “They’re taken and one’s out of the equation probably forever. My wife said it everyday, you need to get back into coaching. You’re a coach.”
Petke might well have stepped down a level to find a new job, but he surely had a sense upon taking over at Real Monarchs that it would lead to ultimately succeeding Cassar at Real Salt Lake. That must have been a factor in him accepting a role way below his capabilities as one of the brightest young coaches in the American game.
Just three games of the new season have been played, but Real Salt Lake already find themselves in a difficult position. Nick Rimando and Albert Rusnak will both miss this weekend’s game against the Red Bulls through international duty, with Kyle Beckerman suspended and a number of key figures struggling with injury. Petke, if he could choose, might wish to be appointed after the fixture against his former club.
Real Salt Lake may want him to start as soon as possible, though. They need someone to energise the club. The organisation has grown stale since the departure of Jason Kreis four years ago, with Cassar merely seeking to continue what his predecessor started. Petke, rather than Schmid, is the man to lead an overhaul of the entire organisation.
Following the RBNY model
Petke did a similar thing with the New York Red Bulls, taking over from Hans Backe with the Harrison club in desperate need of revitalisation. That was something he delivered on, winning the Supporters’ Shield with the Red Bulls in 2013 and establishing the side as a genuine force in the Eastern Conference, even if he failed to translate regular season form into play-off prowess.
At Real Salt Lake, Petke will find a strong platform to build on. It’s not that Cassar presided over a poor team, it’s that he was guilty of leading an underachieving team. With players like Rimando, Beckerman and Joao Plata among the very best in the league, RSL should be performing much better, but that also means that Petke will also have plenty to work with, should he get the job.
Primarily, Petke must make Real Salt Lake a more productive side in the final third. They scored just 44 goals in 34 regular season games last year, making them one of the lowest scoring sides in MLS. Under Kreis RSL were in fact one of North America’s most exhilarating teams, making it to the 2013 MLS Cup final on the back of whirlwind play-off run that saw them net four in one particular away game at Portland.
That reflected the vibrant spirit of the club at that point. Real Salt Lake have stagnated in the time since, with the dismissal of Cassar underlining their need for a revamp. Petke is the man to deliver it.