Kragthorpe: It just takes some time, RSL, you're in the middle
During four years of stops and starts, of reorganizing and rebuilding, Real Salt Lake finally worked its way up to being perfectly average.
This fifth season gives the franchise an opportunity to rise above that status -- both in Major League Soccer and in this market. Beginning with Thursday's home opener against Columbus at Rio Tinto Stadium, this is RSL's chance to further establish itself as a player in Utah professional sports, beyond the niche of soccer lovers.
Will it happen?
Good question. This much is certain: Other than the economy affecting ticket buyers and sponsors, RSL's management could not ask for better conditions than this moment, in terms of building its market share. The Jazz appear headed for an early exit from the NBA playoffs, arena football is shuttered for the season and the snow is reinforcing the idea around here that the Triple-A baseball season really starts when school ends.
If anybody else is ever going to pay attention to this team, now is the time.
So in the stadium's first full season, with a supposedly improved team and a proven coach, RSL should be able to make some kind of move. If nothing else, this season should be a good test of soccer's popularity ceiling in the Salt Lake Valley.
Right now, that measurement tops out at mediocrity. That's fitting, considering the nature of the product.
While it's true that RSL made the playoffs for the first time and advanced to the Western Conference finals, everything leading up to that advancement through the first round was standard stuff. It took a dramatic, 90th-minute, tie-salvaging goal by Yura Movsisyan in the final regular-season game at Colorado last October for RSL to become average. The team posted a 10-10-10 record, with its 40 points ranking seventh in the MLS standings among 14 teams.
With most home games still played in the rental property of Rice-Eccles Stadium, the team averaged 16,314 fans. That's four more people than the league norm. Again, all that kept RSL from being truly middle-of-the-pack in that category was an even number of teams (14).
RSL's average ranking may exceed a lot of early forecasts for this franchise, and so does merely existing at this point -- with the huge bonus of having built a spectacular stadium. Yet owner Dave Checketts and his staff have much bigger ambitions than just surviving here. For them, being not bad is not good enough.
Disregarding last weekend's 2-0 loss at expansion Seattle in the opener, RSL should be better this season. Coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerway have developed a team with experience and scoring ability, and a club that went 8-1-6 at home last year should manage to turn some of those ties into victories.
It may not have looked that way in Seattle, but the momentum generated by some playoff success also should translate into a winning record.
If that happens, especially if RSL can win these first two home games, the team's marketing efforts could gain some traction. The stadium is still in that stage of selling itself as an attraction, and a better-than-average team can only help. By all accounts, Real's following is deep, with a group of committed fans caring a lot about the team's performance.
But are there really more than 16,314 of them out there? This is the year when we're likely to get that answer. If nothing changes, RSL will remain the average MLS franchise, sort of the league's composite character.
And with Seattle having become the 15th team, a spot in the exact middle is now available.