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Monson: Read this; it's the best Utah sports story going
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Not getting preachy here.

Not swinging a ruler at you like some kind of bitter schoolmarm with too many chalkboard eraser marks on her back and spitballs tangled in her hair.

Not claiming to be any sort of righteous zealot for sports truth.

Not firing off overly defensive shots at all the Neanderthals and ignoramuses out there who are alleged idiots for not appreciating the beauty of a beautiful game.

But …

If you're a sports fan in Utah and not paying attention to what Real Salt Lake is doing right now, you're missing out on something somewhere between pretty cool and extraordinary.

Just listen to what general manager Garth Lagerwey said from Mexico on Tuesday, on the eve of RSL's showdown with Monterrey in the first game of a two-game set in the Champions League regional final.

He said: "We haven't done anything yet."

See?

With an attitude like that, Real's bound to become the first Major League Soccer team to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, scheduled for Japan in December. And if they do that, they will face off against the biggest and best soccer clubs on the planet. Just six regional champions, plus one from the host nation, qualify. The last three winners of the Club World Cup were Inter Milan, FC Barcelona and Manchester United.

Those teams' payrolls exceed the gross national product of France. The Monterrey club RSL plays Wednesday night pays its players five times what Real's players make. And, yet, there RSL stands, on the edge of the big time.

You want something to care about — beyond hoping the Lakers get beat in the NBA playoffs, beyond hoping the NFL owners and players will shake the trash out of their brains and get a labor deal done, beyond wondering whether Jake Heaps will stay sharp through summer workouts and Jordan Wynn will completely heal up?

This is your ticket.

But this endeavor is more than just that. It's pausing to consider what RSL is on their way to doing, if they haven't, in fact, done anything yet.

They are becoming the best soccer team in Major League Soccer, the best soccer team not just in the United States, the best soccer team in North America, and maybe even one of the better soccer teams anywhere.

Not only is RSL at the top of every significant MLS power ranking, having not lost a league game early on in the current season, not only do they never lose at Rio Tinto Stadium — Real is 25-0-9 in their last 34 games there — but no MLS team has ever accomplished what RSL already has pulled off thus far in the present form of the Champions League tournament.

That's worth stopping to really absorb — and appreciate, even for Joe and Jill Sixpack, who ordinarily long for soccer the way they long for a four-alarm migraine.

RSL's road won't be easy, and it hasn't been, and that's one of the terrific aspects to their victorious path to this juncture. No MLS club, nor the U.S. Men's National Team, has ever won a game in Mexico as a part of an official competition. MLS teams are 0-21-3 there. The national team is 0-23-1.

Good news for RSL is they don't have to win at Monterrey because they get a return game back at Rio Tinto next Wednesday night, and the team with the most aggregate goals advances. That's a weird little bit of soccer tradition that makes no sense to American sports fans, but most of them can adapt.

Either way, here's the thing: Real Salt Lake has transformed themselves from a laughable expansion team that in 2005 finished 5-22-2 in league, following that up with subsequent seasons of 10-13-9 and 6-15-9.

Since then, they've made the playoffs each year, winning the MLS title in 2009, beating David Beckham's and Landon Donovan's L.A. Galaxy. Last season, RSL went 15-4-11, although they were ousted in the playoffs.

Now, the club is considered the best in the league.

How it happened is interesting stuff, beginning with the hiring of Jason Kreis, the youngest coach in MLS, and Garth Lagerwey, the youngest general manager.

Those guys managed to bring in talent, much of it overlooked, from the homeland and also from 10 other countries, players such as Alvaro Saborio, a journeyman Costa Rican who had bounced from teams at home to Switzerland and England before RSL got him at the start of 2010. Eighteen goals later, Real is glad to have him.

The club also has locked down its main talent to long-term deals, including Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Nick Rimando, among others.

"The concept that we keep our core together is fundamental to our success," said Lagerwey.

As is the fact that those players are a fine fit for the 4-4-2 system Kreis runs, and a greater philosophy of possession soccer in which controlling the ball and the pace of games is paramount.

Real has the advantage also of playing an aggressive brand of soccer that purists — and maybe neophytes, too — find entertaining. Especially when RSL loses only a handful of games over the better part of a season and a half.

Real Salt Lake, notably, has not signed any super-expensive marquee players, opting instead for the aforementioned guys who fit in with what Kreis wants to accomplish: "The team is the star," the coach has repeated about a thousand times.

"We wanted to distribute money to a lot of good players," Lagerwey said. "Not on one big ego. We've worked hard to find what we're looking for."

And now the big time beckons.

"If we can win this thing, it will be a massive step forward for our team, our league, and our country," Lagerwey said. "We have a really cool opportunity. But we haven't done it, yet."

What they have done, though, what they're doing, deserves a good, long look.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 104.7 FM/1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at gmonson@sltrib.com.

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