There are a lot of reasons to be downhearted as an RSL fan coming into the 2014 season. First among those is Jason Kreis’ departure to NYCFC, but the MLS Cup result is up there, and so is the non-qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League tournament with a last-minute change in the rules (from MLS Cup runner-up to MLS team with the best overall record on the season — a title that went to the Portland Timbers). Add to that the loss of a few players (not to mention coaches) due to waived contracts and trades, you’d think that there’d be nothing to look forward to.
On the contrary, I’m more excited about the coming season than ever.
Now, I’ll admit — only half of that is because of RSL. It’s an exciting time to be a soccer fan in the US, with huge signings like Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, there were rumors of Xavi from FC Barcelona maybe moving to NYCFC…the MLS is no longer the red-headed stepchild of international football (well, not as much, anyway). Then there’s two exciting new expansion teams coming in 2015 — and, yes, I’m excited to see NYCFC and Orlando City added to the MLS even though they will be competitors — and more teams positioning themselves to be next.
Despite coming in second at the MLS Cup, I don’t see 2013 as a failure. I still remember that that was what “rebuilding” was supposed to look like. So, everyone who says “yep, that’s it, RSL is done. Jason is gone, the team’s getting old and there’s nothing left” are freaking insane. Yes, the team is getting older, but I’m excited about the new wave of young guys who kicked some serious ass last season proving themselves even more in 2014. I’m looking forward to seeing Benji Lopez on the pitch. I’m excited to see more of John Stertzer and Cole Grossman and Sebastian Velasquez. And I’m excited to see what new academy product, Jordan Allen, and the players we picked up in the SuperDraft look like in preseason. I’m looking forward to seeing Rich Balchan on the pitch without an injury.
But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Jeff Cassar faces a difficult task stepping into Jason Kreis’ shoes. There’s a danger of being too WWJD (What Would Jason Do?) rather than allowing himself the freedom to make those decisions on his own. I’ve been encouraged by the staff he’s surrounded himself by and I’m still pretty hopeful that he’ll do a good job, but everytime I hear “nothing is going to change”, I sort of have an inward groan. Change needs to happen. Because Jason’s RSL is not this RSL and this RSL is not the RSL that won the cup in 2009. The team will evolve and needs to be allowed to evolve, in whatever shape that takes. Change is a good thing.
Outside of RSL, there’ve been dramatic changes to the face of MLS. I’m talking about international stars like Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley coming to Toronto FC. Dempsey’s signing has loosed the floodgates and now everyone is trying to bring star players over from Europe. Which is a good thing for the MLS, honestly. But where does that leave small market, low budget teams like RSL? Can teams with smaller budgets compete on that level? Is the habit of finding “diamonds in the rough” a strategy that can really scale? I have no idea, but I’m interested to find out.
Tomorrow is the first day of the Desert Diamond Cup. RSL will play the New England Revolution at 6pm Mountain Time. Hopefully, we will be able to start to see a possible direction that the team may take in the months and the season ahead. If last year was a rebuilding year, I don’t know what to call this year. But as Brian Dunseth said on ESPN700 last week, “this team can pretty much coach itself” — maybe it’s just a matter of letting the team — the star — determine their own future.