Real Salt Lake: Rebuild pays off sooner than expected (video)
Sandy • Garth Lagerwey sprinted for the elevator at 1:30 a.m. In his hand, mere hours away from the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, was a cocktail napkin littered with words and numbers. It was a proposal reached 30 minutes after receiving a phone call at 1 a.m. to meet in the hotel bar in Indianapolis.
The Real Salt Lake general manager and his staff just had finished their draft board. They knew who they wanted and where they were willing to move in case a player was available.
The focus of the offseason was acquiring new, young players and providing a platform for the youngsters already on the roster to make the most of their opportunities.
Lagerwey's sprint to the elevator to get to his laptop, however many floors up, was to formulate an email to the powers-that-be in the franchise asking approval for a trade for a 20-year-old 5-foot-2 forward, Toronto's Joao Plata.
The move was one of the first since Lagerwey, coach Jason Kreis and the organization dealt away three valves of a beating heart that kept RSL atop Major League Soccer and competitive with the top clubs on the continent. Three MLS All-Stars went away Dec. 3, 2012, as Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola went to the New York Red Bulls. Will Johnson went to Portland in a separate deal.
The deals saved RSL $1 million in salary, while generating more than $500,000 in allocation money, signaling a serious tinkering with the core of the roster, one that at the time unknowingly played an integral role in RSL getting back to the MLS Cup final.
"We had to do something," Lagerwey said. "It wasn't a choice. We were seven figures over the cap."
He was typing up an email regarding Plata six weeks later. That same day, RSL reacquired former forward Robbie Findley in a rights trade with the Portland Timbers. Hours later, RSL drafted forward Devon Sandoval. RSL announced the signing of a 20-year-old Colombian named Olmes Garcia five weeks later.
For Lagerwey, Kreis and the front office, that flurry of transactions in the early months of 2013 fulfilled a need to get younger, faster and better particularly in the attack. The speed acquired up top allowed the scheme of Kreis' diamond-midfield formation to open up. Young midfielders Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez began to make their mark alongside standards Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman and Ned Grabavoy.
In what was one of several developing narratives throughout the season, the midfield became more dynamic through the versatility of the players sprinting in front of them. The midfield scored 11 goals in 2012. RSL midfielders combined to score 22 goals and serve up 24 assists in 2013.
"We needed to have a more varied attack," Lagerwey said. "We needed to have more ways to hurt people because basically what happened over time was everyone knew we were going to come and try to play teams off the park. So they'd bunker in and play compact defensively and dare us to beat them."
As this season wore on, players clicked. Despite several injuries to essential players and missing several key players due to international call-ups, when a spot needed to be filled, it was. The addition of veterans such as Lovel Palmer, Khari Stephenson and Josh Saunders rounded out the mold, and Carlos Salcedo, a then-19-year-old RSL academy center back, was called upon when Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe went down early in the season, started 12 matches.
"A lot of guys have been together for a while," RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said. "The guys who've come into this team who are new, they want to be a part of it. They know what's going on here. They want to buy into this system."
The group came together and stayed together. Players have noted there is no system of hierarchy in the locker room, and Lagerwey said without the veteran core group mentoring the youngsters, RSL wouldn't be 90 minutes away from its second MLS Cup title in five seasons.
"In so many locker rooms, there's an Anglo sect and a Hispanic sect we absolutely eliminated that," Lagerwey said. "We just have players. I think that's been one of the fundamental keys with how we've been able to integrate. With young guys, it's not just about how they develop, it's how they integrate."
To Gil, who recently turned 20, the success of the team and the young players in particular Â has come from the young core trying to be themselves and not mimic or be intimidated by any situation.
"We have our own style," he said, "but we've been playing as a team, and that's what's gotten us this far."
Which is surprising to many, even Lagerwey and Kreis. Following the 2011 season, in which RSL lost in the CONCACAF Champions League final and fell to L.A. in the Western Conference final months later with an injury-depleted back line, the choice was made to give that core group one more shot.
It didn't work out.
So they slammed the reset button, embarking on a new three-year plan to maximize and develop talent by the beginning of the third year, the same way it did in 2008. Like the previous plan, RSL is in a final before previously presumed, which is just fine to the franchise.
"I think we have born the fruit of our labors, so to speak, to give ourselves a chance to win something really, really special this year," Kreis said.
RSL key additions in the offseason included Robbie Findley, Olmes Garcia, Joao Plata, Devon Sandoval, Khari Stephenson, Lovel Palmer, Josh Saunders and Jeff Attinella:
Dec. 3, 2012 • Trades starters Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson
Jan. 3, 2013 • Signs defender Lovel Palmer
Jan. 16, 2013 • Reacquires rights to forward Robbie Findley
Jan. 17, 2013 • Drafts midfielder John Stertzer, forward Devon Sandoval
Jan. 30, 2013 • Acquires forward Joao Plata
Feb. 21, 2013 • Signs forward Olmes Garcia
Feb. 22, 2013 • Signs goalkeeper Josh Saunders
RSL at Sporting KC
Saturday, 2 p.m.