On Thursday, Real Salt Lake General Manager Craig Waibel met with the media to put the wraps on the 2016 season. He addressed a wide array of topics and you can read the transcript below.
Q: When you don’t win a championship there is always disappointment. This year and last year, the gap between what people thought the team was capable of accomplishing on paper vs. what it actually accomplished left another level of a hollow feeling. What do you attribute that to and what went wrong?
Waibel: I think a lot of things have to go right in order to have the optimism that we had this year. We were able to make some roster moves that I think gave us a little bit more confidence. The first half of the season, quite frankly, is why everyone was so optimistic. I talked last year about a 12-month, 18-month, 24-month plan and I think we maybe got a few more pieces right in the short term than we thought we were in terms of being able to sign impact players. It certainly wasn’t naïve of anyone to be optimistic. We started the season very, very well. We were scoring goals. We were producing. I think we did consistently have an issue defensively and it was apparent. And I think that one of the best coaches in the league exploited it in our last game. One of the best coaches in American history exploited it in terms of where we conceded space. The disappointment always comes from how high the optimism can get. If we put together a roster that isn’t expected to accomplish anything we probably won’t feel as low. I think we’ve taken a lot of good steps. I think there are a lot more courageous steps we need to take as an organization. And I think that when we commit to those courageous steps that there are going to be some growing pains involved like there were this year. But we need to walk as one and we need to make sure that the minor setbacks aren’t overblown out of proportion into major setbacks. Only one team gets to celebrate and unfortunately we have to lament far earlier than we wanted to.
Q: Can you give an update on Jeff Cassar?
Waibel: We’ll be addressing it over the next week. Immediately upon the season ending, I always take two days to let the emotion and exhaustion seep out. We then spend the next 3-4 days addressing the roster itself and the player decisions. The coaching staff, every year, will be a part of that conversation. Then once we’re through that, we move on as an organization to evaluate the staff. Yesterday was busy. It was all the player meetings. As I commonly tell my family, that’s my best worst day of my year. It’s a very difficult day to deliver some difficult messages. But it’s also a turning point back to where we get to optimistically start to evaluate and look towards next year. Part of that step is evaluating the coaching staff as well. We’ll now take two days to recover from yesterday and then from there we’ll have the evaluation and get into it. I don’t want to set any strict timeline, but we take 5-7 days on the players and I think it’s fair to say we’ll evaluate the exact same way.
Q: Can you give us some of your thoughts on the job Jeff did?
Waibel: I thought he improved. I thought there was more commitment by him to enforce and engage this formation shift. I think his leadership has grown. He’s a third-year head coach. Sometimes people forget that just because a team has been around doesn’t mean every coach has. I think he grew tremendously in the way he is capable of communicating and his management abilities. His individual conversations were much more succinct this year. I think a lot of confusion last season came from … maybe he might have been afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. In sports – I forget where I got it, but I’m not claiming it – the truth is the truth. And if someone is good enough, they are, and if someone isn’t, they aren’t. I think Jeff is getting much better at viewing through that lens when he selects players. I think there’s still a lot of room to grow. I think it would be naïve for him in his third year or for me at 15 months in this role for either one of us to think we are as sharp as we need to be. But I do think that there were steps taken and that will be taken into consideration when we evaluate him and the staff. One of the things I’m learning is how important the balance of the whole staff is. When I came here as an assistant coach, I was able to understand that balance because I was an assistant. So it was my job to help carry the load as an assistant. In my role now, it’s not the same. I’m evaluating and trying to help in every way I can. So I think we need to look not only at him specifically, but at the entire group and make sure that the entire group represents what we’re trying to do here.
Q: Does this team need to get younger?
Waibel: Absolutely. We need to get younger. We need to get stronger. We need to cultivate an environment where working in the weight room and working away from the field is just as important as on the field. We need to get away from the idea of what this club once was, in terms of showing up for practice and leaving … it’s a different league. It’s a different league. We have international players that are used to training twice a day. They’re used to lifting weights three times a week. They’re used to an intense environment. We need to grow. We need to be willing and have the courage as an organization and as a group to challenge our players more physically and mentally and put them in front of video more often. I think from a roster perspective we need to continue to get younger. We need to get back to what made this club what it was. That is to get a good core of players that can be here for quite some time that still physically have some room to grow and within the game have a lot of talent and room to grow. We need to cultivate that and we need to, as we have been doing, recreate an identity, but one that people fear. I think transition is not something people from the outside fear. It’s only feared on the inside. From the outside it looks like we’ve taken steps back. I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to get to the playoffs. We spent one year out. In terms of Jeff coming into his third year, the staff coming into that third year and myself kind of taking the reins last August in really my first year in this role, I’m not going to pretend I’m happy with how it ended. I’m not going to pretend I’m happy with eight winless games to finish a season when I think our roster was much more capable. I think as we move forward and get younger, we can’t lose sight of some of the players that have carried the load. We certainly will look to keep quite a few of them involved. There is great consideration taken into what players have done for our club in the decisions that I have to make. Sometimes we’re not going to find the right happy medium. Not all players agree with my assessment. If that’s the case, then unfortunately we’ll have to part ways with some guys, but as we get younger and we get stronger, there’s a place for a lot of veteran players to contribute as long as the roles are acceptable to them.
Q: How do you feel about the chemistry?
Waibel: I think if you would have asked me in July, I just would have said ‘Great’ and stood up and walked out of the room. I think anytime you play a 10-month season, there are ebbs and flows in everything. Not only performance, but health and in terms of chemistry. Whenever you put this many competitive men in the same room and pit them against each other for playing time and the coaches make tough decisions, it’s a tough, long message to manage. The great ones are great because of it. I think we’re in a good spot. I do think there are some changes that need to be made. I think inevitably in sports, the changes that come are optimism. That’s why we as fans look forward to next year at the disappointment of this year. It takes some time to get over the emotional scar. I think the chemistry’s good. I think it’s getting better. I think as we continue to change the culture and make it a younger and very optimistic environment to play in and be a part of and to grow in, I think we’ll be in a good spot.
Q: Can you address the optimism of the club late in the year when the team wasn’t winning?
Waibel: Losing in sports certainly puts a hamper on optimism. You start to search for answers. You search for clues. It’s a scavenger hunt when you’re not winning. You look back at even the way players and coaches do interview – when you’re winning everyone’s in line, but when you’re losing it’s almost like everyone is searching for the answer. And when we feel like you’ve put a finger on it, we’ll make a run. Inevitably winning and losing is the ultimate factor. Winning can solve so many problems in sports, it’s unbelievable. Having played and having been around as a coach, I’ve been on teams that had no business getting along, but when you win on Saturday everyone seems to be a little happier.
Q: You talked about the team getting younger and you talk about courageous moves. That’s going to lead to some obvious speculation. Are you comfortable with all the speculation going forward? Can you clarify that a little more without crossing that line?
Waibel: I’ll try and walk right up to the line. I think Mauro Biello up in Montreal said something that is very astute in sport. We can never lose sight of the fact that we exist for what the player can do for the club and not what the club can do for the player. When we lose sight of that, sometimes we make decisions that aren’t in the best interest of performance. When I talk about getting younger, when I talk about inevitable change – which, at the end of next season I’ll talk about change, we’ll win championships and I’ll talk about change. It’s part of what I do. It’s part of the job. It’s inevitably a difficult part of my job. But at the same time, as we evolve, as we get a little younger and bring some new faces in, there will be roles. There will be roles in our organization. There will be roles on the roster. There will be careful consideration taken on the personality and the abilities of each player as they age. Some of them will remain and will have opportunities to stay on the roster possibly in a different role. Some of them will have the ability to join the organization in a role that will help us off the field. Inevitably these things happen. The end of my career was very immediate and I try to take that into consideration when I’m having conversations with our players. The speculation is inevitable. That’s what makes this fun for everyone. Every decision I make will be questioned. It will be analyzed. It will be scrutinized. It will be enjoyed by some. It will be adored by others. And it will be hated by others. Because we have opinion and that’s what makes this what it is. Specifically, to our roster today, we must get younger in order to compete in this league. We must make bold decisions to strengthen the core of this group. To strengthen the identity of our locker room. And to strengthen the ability to buy in as well as interpret and perform on a consistent basis to what the coaching staff is asking for.
Q: Given that Portland and Columbus were in the MLS Cup Final and then weren’t in the playoffs and given that Colorado and NYCFC jumped up so fast, do you see something that can be done quickly? Or are you thinking something more gradual as you start to rebuild?
Waibel: In my world where there are unicorns and rainbows and ice cream for everyone, it’s a gradual build. It’s a steady development of players. It’s a steady development of staff. It’s a steady development of identity. Our league is interesting. We have a salary cap. We have general allocation, we have TAM allocation, we have expansion allocation, we have performance allocation … there are so many elements that go into it and sometimes it happens a little bit quicker than you think. For me, I want to build something sustainable. Slow and methodical is not always the way to be, but at the same time, sustainable is the word that I try to make my decisions based around. We try not to sign vigilante signings. We’re trying to really be careful and bring guys in that want to be here. That’s not going to happen every time. I’m not going to get every one right and I know that. And when I miss, I’m going to hear about it. Not only from ownership, but from the fanbase. And I deserve it because that’s my job. But in my vision, we do have a slow methodical build. We have young players on our roster that need to be developed. For us, we need to be consistent in how we are going about it and we need to be very careful when we get to the point where our roster has the core that it needs to go out and supplement and get that one or two special pieces that can come in and really make that difference and push us to a championship. I think that’s when you’ll start hearing (me talk about) going to make a splash because it’s the one or two pieces we need.
Q: Last offseason you talked about the need for a center back. Did Aaron Maund and Justen Glad show you enough this year to change that thinking going into this offseason?
Waibel: I think Aaron and Justen and Chris Schuler all did a really good job possibly helping me maybe get my foot halfway up to my mouth. I do think that there are dominant center backs and if you look at the top three, four or five center backs in our league, I would not put Aaron and Justen and Chris there yet. I think Chris coming back from injury has the ability. I think Justen at 19 years old has so much upside it’s amazing. Aaron Maund’s strides in the last 18 months have been really remarkable, quite frankly. We are very confident in the three of them. If a player the likes of Van Damme or a guy like that overseas calls Salt Lake, I’m certainly going to pick up the phone. We’re certainly looking to bolster our team and center back is certainly a position that every team in the world wants and every team in the world needs. If you find a good one, it’s a position you don’t hesitate to get. I think you kind of go down the spine of the team and every time you pass on a central player that’s very capable, you end up looking in the mirror a little bit later and wonder if it was the right one. We have very good center backs right now and they’re in their development. It’s the commitment that we put forth in them and the belief that we put in them that’s going to ultimately pay off for the organization in the long run, be it through their personal development and wearing this jersey or in MLS we are becoming a world market. In our league to create revenue to spend on the salary cap, sometimes you need to move players. That will create speculation, but there’s no need to get too carried away with it this year.
Q: How would you view Jordan Allen’s progress?
Waibel: We had a great meeting with Jordan yesterday. The whole basis of the meeting was when I came here as an assistant in 2014, he was the first guy off the bench, and started and got injured, and in 2015, got injured and in 2016, had a few things come up where we couldn't really just give him that consistent run. Jordan acknowledged that, he was the one that brought it up, and said look, ‘I'm coming in fit. I've addressed the issues. I know what they are physically.’ The training staff and the strength staff have done a great job with him, and I think next year is the year that we see him really break out in terms of consistent performance, and continuity and contribution for us. The big thing with him is health. If you look back over the last 3 years, there's not been many times where he's been 100% healthy and not been selected, or at least given the ability to go out on the field. That’s the biggest thing for him - bigger, stronger and healthy.
Q: How would you assess the progress made by Omar Holness, your first-round pick from last year?
Waibel: Omar is a really talented young man, he's actually going in with Jamaica next Monday. We think the world of Omar, for everything he is as a soccer player, he's ten times the person. He's just an amazing kid. I guess I can call him a kid, because I'm over 40. He's well put together, mentally really adjusted as a pro very quickly. His training habits are fantastic. I think we have a good selection of young players in our organization right now and it’s a matter of how we cultivate them. That’ll be part of our conversation with the staff, if we say we want to get a little bit younger and get a little bit stronger and get a little bit faster then what are the right pieces to put in and where? How do we have that balance of youth and put it together with the veterans we have to complement? Omar is a player that, to use really vague sports talk, is going to make it. He's just physically gifted and mentally so strong and so astute that we have no doubt. What is wonderful for us is his ability to go in with the Jamaican National Team is extra games - games we can't provide him in the offseason. This is a guy that featured quite a few times for the Monarchs. His development over the year was very promising and will grow exponentially. At some point in the next year or two years, I think Omar becomes a guy that will be relied upon.
Q: Do you expect to add another Designated Player?
Waibel: The way we have built the roster we have the ability to. I don't want to be coy or misleading, we certainly will have the ability to look for another Designated Player and it is in the best interest of our team and our roster to do that. Positionally speaking, I don’t want to get too far into it, but we are very specific in where we think that should be. The big thing for me is I don't believe in panicking and I don’t believe in signing players just to put a band-aid on it. We’ve got to make sure it’s the right person because the position we are looking at are extremely important one for our organization.
Q: What is the future for Sebastian "Bofo" Saucedo?
Waibel: His future with RSL is unwritten. He is on loan and in his particular loan there is a purchase clause that can be exercised. We wrote the loan to end at the end of the season for them, so we'll find out shortly if they are planning on exercising a purchase on him. We'd be happy to have him back. More than happy to have him back. He's a really, really talented young man. The experience down there has taught him a lot. We've been tracking him very closely since he's our contracted player for quite some time. He'd be welcomed back with open arms in terms of his abilities and what we are trying to accomplish.
Q: What did you think of Burrito's first full season?
Waibel: I thought it was interesting. In the first 3-4 months of the season, there was a lot of talk of him possibly being one of the top 4-5 players in our league - not only production-wise but with the special things he was doing on the ball. Juan is a unique person. He endures a lot of things without sharing them publicly. He played with an injury for the last two or three months of the season and never talked about it or stated it out of respect for the organization and the fan base. He doesn't feel the need to put an excuse out. For the first half of the year, statistically speaking we as a group played to the strengths of Juan and isolated him quite frequently 1v1 and even when the second defender came over, at times he was better with two defenders than one. The halfway mark of the season is tough to figure out when you're used to having a break. In MLS, not only do we not take the break but we played right through the heat. That took a little impact on him, and down the stretch, its back to the treasure hunt - there's no one thing with any one player that dictates where we were. There’s a culmination of quite a few things that added to our struggles to score. One of them was the ability to isolate our wingers, another was the ability to move the ball quickly through the central channel, one of them was to possess within the center channel to draw numbers in and then spring the wide guys. His performance, and he would tell you this, was representative of the collection of the team. The team has to put him in the right spots to do things and as the season went and we weren’t moving the ball as efficiently in the center channel, we didn’t nullify the wings, but there was a negative impact to be had on each of those guys.
Q: Are you still supportive of the 4-3-3 formation and tactics of the last two seasons?
Waibel: It's funny, people like to call it all sorts of things, I call it ‘soccer semantics.’ We play with four defenders and we play with one striker. Whatever else is in between there, you go ahead and interpret it the way you want. It changes game-to-game. It could be a 4-2-3-1, we have the personnel to play side-by-side. We have the personnel to play more of a box-to-box midfielder in kind of a 4-3-3. We have the ability to play a 4-1-4-1 and depending where we are with personnel and injuries, sometimes that’s dictated. I like the way we are building our roster. I think it favors this type of formation and early in season we saw a lot of success in the attacking half. We must get more complete, regardless of what we’re going to call it. We must get more consistent with our defensive shape, our defensive presence, our defensive attitude and mentality. Teams are defined by many things, scoring is only one of them. If you look at LA, they can break out and score four or five goals on any given day, but Coach Arena is very good at making sure they are not picking ball out of their net very often. Colorado has been phenomenal defensively this year and it’s led to a record-setting 13 one-goal games. That’s an incredible feat and an incredible dedication to what you are doing. In our formation, we must have a better defensive balance next year and discipline in order to be successful for the whole season. Part of the change in the summer was we started to see certain spaces on the field, especially in the channels, exploited and we never got our feet under us for a number of reasons. I have a list of those reasons in my office, but to air them is dirty laundry.
Q: Is the main focus in the offseason finding guys who are more athletic, younger, faster?
Waibel: I don't think any team would ever say they don't want to be younger, quicker, more athletic and more efficient on the ball, but I also think we need all of those and to be more dynamic off the ball. A lot of times we lose sight of the fact that the off-ball movement in soccer is 99.9% of the game. The ball is just one out of 22 guys. The first half of the season again if you look at the runs and spaces were getting into, many of those things were created without the ball. With the ball, we need to be more efficient, more agile, we have to be versatile down the center of field, and the ball needs to move quicker and we need to be more efficient.
Q: How much roster turnover do you expect from this year to next?
Waibel: Shaping an identity is massive. It’s not only the decisions I’m responsible for on the roster. It’s the staff decisions. It’s how we represent our transition and those changes. It’s how the business side and the soccer side work together to have a consistent message. We need to have a clear identity of where we are going. We need to know exactly what we are. We need to know what each position ideally has. We need to build those models of exactly what each players looks like in our perfect world. There's been some catch-up, in the process of switching formation, we work on that consistently and tweak it as we go. I think this offseason is very, very important in the sense that we have a clear identity as we enter next season as to who we are and what we are. We are not going to get every player right overnight, in MLS contracts are written in such a way that we aren't like the rest of the world. We can't change our roster every six months and we have a much more annual identity and that creates a longer growth and identity perspective from where I sit. As we make roster decisions this offseason, they will be steering towards who we want to become, but I'm not going to sit here and tell you that on January 20 we will have every piece correct. The optimism is what carries us through these changes we make, there will be some tough decisions to be made by me as well as some players and those changes will dictate a few of the pieces we pick up.
I'm very, very happy with the core group we have. We have re-signed Jordan Allen. We've re-signed Luke Mulholland for multiple years. We are currently working with Justen Glad's representation. Aaron Maund is out of contract, but his agent and I have been in very healthy talks. We've made a very consistent effort over last 12 months to hang on and have the services of many of the players that we feel can contribute for quite some time. These are steps in the organization to lay the foundation to go out and get the complementary pieces and the special ones and until we have that foundation set, and that vision of where we are going, for me it is about building what is sustainable and complementing it around it. Plata had a fantastic season, and he's on a long-term deal. We just signed Yura to a long-term deal. We have quite a few guys who will become the identity and the people that our fans identify with because they are good players and good people. Unique to a few organizations is that character matters as much as performance and ours is one of those.
Q: Do MLS rules prevent you from building RSL the way you'd like?
Waibel: I would never blame the league. ... The league rules don't prevent us from building good teams. What they do is they require a longer-term vision because we don't have ability to change our roster every six months like some of the big clubs in the world. I'll never blame league for what my roster looks like. I'll talk about some of the limitations that I feel might be there, but the rules are consistent and very fair. This is the third offseason for me, since late December 2014, the roster was mostly built, I wasn't going to do anything drastic. Last summer, I worked with Bill Manning and his leadership was great. He got me through my first real transfer window, that's when we got Burrito, and when he stepped away last August it was time for me to swim without a lifejacket. As I went through the first one, there was a lot of questioning myself and the idea about what kind of player I like. Now we have a clearer vision and over the next month with the staff we’ll create a very concrete vision of what we are in terms of identity of each position and where we’re going so that the next person we sign in each position is the one we want. This will be my third transfer window as the General Manager and I’m looking forward to it. I'm optimistic and I love when I hear other clubs talk about how the league makes it difficult for them. Homework and relentless work ethic is the only way to be successful. It doesn’t matter what profession you’re in. I love my group and I think my support staff is very capable of identifying players. Then there's that other little thing called money that can get deals done, so if we have right amount, we will have the right guys.
Q: There was a report that Atlanta might be interested in Nick Rimando. Can you comment on that at all?
Waibel: I think we have two ‘keepers that a lot of teams would be interested in. Speculation is fun. I deal with it every day. I get emails every day. I'll wait until I'm contacted and we will address it as we go. To get too far into any conversation when it’s all just an article online, is probably inappropriate. At this point, I can tell you that I have not been contacted once by Atlanta for any reason.