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Dave Checketts addresses the media after a ground breaking on Real Salt Lake's new stadium in Sandy on Saturday. 8/12/06 Jim Urquhart/Salt Lake Tribune
Real Salt Lake: From humble start, RSL becomes MLS power
Major League Soccer » Committed ownership, smart acquisitions create perennial contender.
First Published Mar 21 2014 01:32 pm • Last Updated Mar 22 2014 11:14 am

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.

At a glance

RSL vs. LA Galaxy

Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV: NBC Sports Network

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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.

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The doldrums

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.

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