MLS commissioner Don Garber calls Real Salt Lake a ‘model club’ for other cities looking to join league

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2017, file photo, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber smiles during a press conference where it was announced that Nashville was awarded an MLS franchise, in Nashville, Tenn. Major League Soccer and Liga MX have joined in a long-term partnership that will launch later this year when reigning MLS Cup champion Toronto hosts a team from Mexico's top league. The match, dubbed the Campeones Cup, is set for Sept. 19 at BMO Field. The partnership announced Tuesday, March 13, 2018, will go beyond that single game to include youth competitions, future All-Star games and other events and initiatives. "We and Liga MX have an opportunity to do something that's really unprecedented in North America," Garber said. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Fifteen years ago, when Real Salt Lake was birthed as a new expansion team in Major League Soccer, commissioner Don Garber had been on the job only six years. When he was hired, the owners of the then-10-team league tasked him with stabilizing and growing the league.

As he figured out the first step of that equation, the next step turned out to be RSL. As he sat in a chair on the 24th floor of the Wells Fargo building Wednesday talking to a small contingent of reporters, Garber spoke about the evolution of the Salt Lake City club that grew into an MLS mainstay.

“I have a special place in my heart for Real Salt Lake,” Garber said.

The MLS commissioner, now in his 20th year on the job, called RSL a “model club” for other markets looking to join the league. He credited owner Dell Loy Hansen for investing in an MLS team, a United Soccer League team (Real Monarchs), a National Women’s Soccer League team (Utah Royals) and an academy that sits on a massive training complex in Herriman.

Garber said RSL is the only club in the MLS that has all four components in its market. The only one that comes close, he said, is the Portland Timbers, which has three of the four. He added that RSL is an example of what can be done in the markets where the league looks to expand.

“Salt Lake doesn't sit around the table as one of our new teams anymore — been here for 14 years,” Garber said. "And yet when you look at what they've been able to achieve, when we're talking to Nashville and St. Louis and Sacramento, we're using Salt Lake as a model as to what is it you need to do in a small market to be successful.”

Soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, who toured the RSL complex in Herriman for the first time Tuesday, said a facility like that gives a smaller market like Salt Lake City a leg up when recruiting players not only in North America, but overseas.

“There are teams all over the world that would kill or die to have the type of facilities and the type of commitment that has been put into creating this type of environment and culture right now,” Lalas said of RSL’s facility. “It rivals anything that I've seen before domestically or internationally. If I was a young American soccer player I would be very, very happy if I had the opportunity to be in this market.”

Garber said it is clear to him that Hansen and the RSL organization as a whole wants to build soccer in the region, and the way he’s decided to spend his money proves that. He added that MLS owners as a whole are still in investment mode with their teams.

“He can be profitable tomorrow if he wanted to,” Garber said of Hansen, "but he might not have the Royals and the Monarchs.”