Real Salt Lake: From humble start, RSL becomes MLS power
By Christopher Kamrani
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Mar 21 2014 01:32PM
It started with golden shovels and a little white lie. But something had to be done.
Perhaps more than any sport, soccer is a game that takes notice of luck. A team can be overmatched and outplayed for 90-plus minutes, yet still sneak away with a victory. So before there was a stadium packed with frenzied fans and full luxury suites, there was a vacant field. And a lot of crossed fingers.
As Real Salt Lake takes the field at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the first home match of its 10th season, the team has established itself as unusually skilled and savvy in climbing from the basement of Major League Soccer to the top floor, becoming an MLS model for stability, success and championship contention in one of the league’s smallest markets.
But team owner Dave Checketts needed a break in the summer of 2006. And he got it.
After fighting a losing battle to put a new stadium in Salt Lake City and openly feuding with Salt Lake County over public financing for it, Checketts struck a deal with Sandy to put RSL’s stadium there. Financing was far from finalized; in fact, the team had not yet received a building permit. But with global soccer powerhouse Real Madrid in town to play RSL in an exhibition match at the team’s then-home, Rice-Eccles Stadium, Checketts was determined to seize the moment.
Enlisting Real Madrid superstar David Beckham and other Real Madrid and Real Salt Lake team members and officials, the RSL owner staged a photo op for the ages on an empty plot of land near 9400 South State, next to a mobile-home park. Golden shovels in hand, all of them tilled a little dirt to break ground on what would become Rio Tinto Stadium.
Never mind the details.
"That picture of Beckham holding the gold shovel sticking it into the dirt," Checketts said, "that became a photo seen worldwide."
And with that, a Major League Soccer pushover began doing a little pushing of its own.
Before there was a Rio Tinto Stadium and its sold-out crowds, Real Salt Lake home games were known for their wide open spaces. RSL played in a 45,000-seat college football stadium, with lousy sightlines and fans scattered across the lower sections. Tarps covered thousands of empty seats above. Though the stadium played a critical role in Salt Lake City acquiring an MLS franchise, it was a generally miserable place to watch soccer.
The ball skipped off the artificial turf like a rounded-off stone springing off a smooth lake away from players. It took funky bounces, some of which led to comical mistakes from the home team or the visitors. A hoped-for transition to respectability seemed further and further away with each loss and listless performance.
"It was really, really bad," recalled RSL assistant coach Andy Williams, one of the club’s original players. "The first two years, you’d never tell anybody, ‘I play for Real.’ I used to tell people I just worked at the stadium."
Defender Brian Dunseth’s late header in RSL’s first home match sent thunder throughout Rice-Eccles Stadium in its first ever win April 16, 2005, in front of 38,000 spectators. That was the high point. As 2005 dragged on, it eventually ended with five wins. RSL lost 22 times and had a negative-35 goal differential.
"The foundation wasn’t there," said Dunseth, who since has transitioned to a career in broadcasting. "A lot of it was learning on the fly. A lot of guys working in the office on the soccer side of things, they were working there for the first time."
The club couldn’t win, at least not consistently. While it eclipsed the double-digit win margin in 2006 with 10 wins, it missed the playoffs. In 2007, RSL started 0-4. After commuting between his home in New York and his home in the Salt Lake Valley — and owning the St. Louis Blues in between — former owner Dave Checketts had enough.
"At one point," he said, "I got very, very angry and got involved."
‘The team’s not going to work out here’
The clock had about run out. The Salt Lake County Council had voted to again turn down a financing proposal for a new stadium Real Salt Lake could call its own. But it was Friday night and Checketts had some entertaining to do with Real Madrid in town the night before Saturday’s friendly.
Playing host to the team at the tony La Caille restaurant near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Checketts arrived and was met at the entrance by his daughter Elizabeth, then 14.
"I said, ‘Honey, [the county] turned it down again," he said. "The team’s not going to work out here."
But after brainstorming with Madrid president Ramon Calderon — RSL had paid a hefty sum to get the Spanish power to play in Salt Lake City and even offered its guests a piece of the team — Checketts took a new approach. Bypassing county officials, he began to lobby Utah legislative leaders and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. With state help, he was able to secure $110 million to build Rio Tinto.
But none of it may have happened without Real Madrid arriving in town when it did.
"It’s like taking the Yankees to Timbuktu," Dunseth said. "Somehow, Dave got Real Madrid on the ground in Sandy."
Torn up in the process was Checketts’ Plan B — a fallback deal to sell the team to St. Louis investors and move the team there.
"I had 12 days to get out of the deal," he said, "and I was never so happy to tear anything up in my whole life."
All the right moves
RSL forward Jason Kreis was still technically a player when he was picked to replace RSL’s original coach, John Ellinger, in 2007 as part of a housecleaning that also included the ousting of general manager Steve Pastorino.
Kreis was a quick study. Ditching his cleats for good, he got on a plane to South America just a few weeks later and found midfielder Javier Morales after RSL had traded for Nick Rimando and eventually Kyle Beckerman.
But RSL needed a GM, so Kreis told Checketts about the smartest guy he’d ever known — his former roommate Garth Lagerwey, a former MLS goalkeeper turned associate lawyer in Washington. Checketts spent six hours with Lagerwey before hiring him. In April 2008, Bill Manning, a former front office official with the Philadelphia Eagles, was hired as team president.
Kreis, Lagerwey and Manning began working together to forge an identity for the club that centered around winning and consistency.
"At the end of the day, it all comes down to winning and the team," Manning said. "Because everything else follows." And to start winning, he added, RSL’s culture had to change.
First up was changing what Manning called a "minor-league mentality" he encountered when he first arrived. He changed the way the club marketed itself, no longer accepting one-year sponsorship deals and implementing a financial floor the club wouldn’t go below.
As RSL continued to acquire key players such as Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave and Ned Grabavoy, the level of play began to rise — and so did the brand.
RSL had 4,000 season-ticket holders in 2008. Six years later, the club has more than 11,000. Manning said 2012 was the first year the franchise officially broke even, which showed "we were a viable business model."
RSL’s continuing challenge as it enters its 10th season, Lagerwey said, is to find ways to further entrench itself in the community and to convert more fans to the sport. That will create new customers.
"It’s great to talk about the growth of our business and everything that we do, but the fact is, in my opinion, we’re resonating with a community," Lagerwey said. "You look at the number of young families that are at games, and you can become then a generational thing because kids tend to go to the games their dads bring them to. That’s how you make it work. Then you’re part of the fabric of your society and culture."
More than a team and a star
Winning helps. Guided by Kreis and a core of veterans led by Beckerman, Rimando, Morales, Alvaro Saborio, Borchers and Wingert, RSL has reached the postseason for six straight years. It won the MLS Cup in 2009 and has earned three other finals berths since then — Champions League in 2011, and the U.S. Open Cup and another MLS Cup last year. The team again sits at or near the top of various MLS power rankings as the 2014 campaign gets underway.
The goal now is to sustain that success. So far, so good.
Since buying out Checketts last year, former minority owner Dell Loy Hansen hasn’t missed a beat, according to Manning and Lagerwey.
"Dell Loy was very passionate about organizing and owning a local sports team," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "A model for success is having a great local owner, because, ultimately, you need to have local ownership, guys you’re going to bump into in a local grocery store."
Things changed again 12 months later, when Kreis left after seven seasons to become the new coach of New York City FC, an MLS expansion team that will begin play next year.
In true Real Salt Lake fashion, longtime assistant coach Jeff Cassar was given the keys with the goal of keeping the engine humming.
"I would argue that if we come in  and we do well, that would be a sign that no one is indispensable," said Lagerwey, who is in the final year of his contract. "The goal of any good organization is to set up systems so that you can replicate [success]."
But it starts and ends with the product on the field. RSL’s metamorphosis from MLS sad sack to perennial contender has earned it a valuable piece of Utah’s sports market.
Any conversation about the Jazz, Utes and Cougars also must now include Real Salt Lake.
"You put the right players on the right team and you get the right vibe and the right attitude, you’re going to be successful," Rimando, the team’s star goalkeeper, said. "I think that’s what we have here."