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Real Salt Lake: From humble start, RSL becomes MLS power
Major League Soccer » Committed ownership, smart acquisitions create perennial contender.

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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."

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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.

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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

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