Kragthorpe: Real Salt Lake has staying power in MLS
Sandy • Nick Rimando never could have said anything like this when he joined a Major League Soccer team that played on a borrowed football field with Mountain West Conference logos painted on it, when Jason Kreis was an aging player and not a coaching star, and when Real Salt Lake was still trying to make something of itself as an expansion franchise.
Standing on the team's new $1 million practice field, RSL's goalkeeper said, "There's a lot of teams in this league that want to be Real Salt Lake."
That would have seemed to silly to say five years ago when Rimando arrived, but everything's different now. Real opens the season Saturday at Los Angeles as one of the two or three best teams in MLS, expected to contend for a championship. "It's a feeling that we've kind of gotten used to," Kreis said.
Since winning the MLS Cup in 2009, RSL has kept its roster mostly intact and maintained high-level consistency. The team is 30-15-19 in the past two regular seasons, accumulating the league's third-highest point total.
Real has come a long way from its 2005 launch. Those first three seasons at Rice-Eccles Stadium produced a combined 21-38-20 record, resulting in the firings of the franchise's original coach and general manager and leading to a personnel overhaul that has created a solid, entertaining product.
"We've been able to keep a core guys together for a number of years now," said general manager Garth Lagerwey, "and these guys are pretty good."
How good? They're some of the best of MLS at their positions: Rimando, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales, forward Alvaro Saborio and defenders Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave.
The team's new practice site in Sandy is another sign of excellence, if modestly packaged. When you read about a $1 million facility, you're picturing some kind of striking structure, right?
Well, it's a field. The bulk of the money was poured into the turf itself, in an effort to duplicate the pristine playing surface of Rio Tinto Stadium. The players love it, and others should recognize what it represents. What happens on the soccer field is how Real Salt Lake will be judged in 2012.
This franchise has staying power, and the standards are high. Lagerwey's offseason emphasis was reworking the bottom half of the roster, the part that had become "a little stagnant," he said. He's trying to create depth with younger, faster, more athletic players who can contribute this season and prepare for bigger roles in the future.
Gone are Robbie Russell and Andy Williams, both with ties to RSL's past success. Just about everybody else is back, though.
"We kept this group together for one reason to win," Lagerwey said. "We will be successful if we win titles. If we don't win titles, then we've lost."
The true judgment of this team, then, is a long way off. A season that begins March 10 will not end until Dec. 1, if Real reaches the MLS Cup final. That's 267 days, allowing for all kinds of ups and downs, injuries, international team assignments and other variables. The unbalanced schedule that's skewed toward competition with other Western Conference teams also will affect RSL's record.
Eighteen other teams are starting the season with similar goals, but a championship is much more realistic for RSL than for most of them.
That's where this franchise is now. This is not like the bad, old days, when just fielding a team and building a stadium were major achievements. RSL considers itself as a winning organization. That's a lot to live up to, but it's certainly better than having no expectations at all.
P RSL at L.A. Galaxy
Saturday, 8:30 p.m.