Sandy • It’s nearing 8 p.m., and Craig Waibel is filling the dark space of empty cubicles with the all-too-familiar aroma of coffee. It’s empty because it’s a Saturday night, and the Real Salt Lake general manager works his way to his desk in his nook of the executive offices to watch the final 20 minutes of RSL’s 2-1 loss at Columbus on June 30.
Behind Waibel’s desk is a gigantic map of the globe — and by gigantic, it takes up an entire wall. The world of soccer is, in theory, a one-stop shop for organizational architects such as Waibel, who looks on as his team pushes for a late equalizer against one of the best clubs in Major League Soccer, but comes up short.
Four days later, the franchise’s youth movement — pieced together from places all over that map — exemplified what the front office and coaching staff have long envisioned, putting four goals past Sporting Kansas City, previously the top team in the West. Officially into the second half of the 2018 season, RSL is tied for fourth place in the West with 26 points.
And as is the case twice a season, a transfer window is opening up, which bring with it the usual questions for Waibel and the club: Is RSL looking for upgrades? At what positions? Where on that map might they looking?
So when he’s asked to identify the club’s priority entering the summer transfer window that opens Tuesday, Waibel provides the sort of answer he has since making the move from the bench to the front office in December 2014.
“We don’t want to the stunt the growth of our young guys that are showing well,” he said, “but at the same time, we clearly understand we have to keep trying to make this roster better, keep trying to make this team better, keep trying to make everything challenging for the coaches.”
As millions are pumped into rosters in MLS every season, with it come expectations that raise higher and higher. More money is being spent on player acquisitions than ever. True to the league’s reputation for parity, the halfway point this year shows only a few of the conceived “biggest spenders” in the playoff picture.
RSL’s approach is paying dividends. Through international acquisitions and homegrown talent, the club’s current core is a group of youngsters surrounded by veterans from MLS or around the world. The average age of the front line that produced four goals in the win over Sporting KC was 21.
But what does RSL need?
Like most teams worldwide, it’s what every roster so desperately needs: A proven center forward. Homegrown product Corey Baird has been a revelation, scoring five goals and notching two assists. Luis Silva has four goals, too. The position was — in the most ideal scenarios of this preseason — to be taken over by Alfredo Ortuño, the 27-year-old Spanish striker acquired in the winter transfer window. That experiment went nowhere.
Rumors and reports are circulating that Ortuño is attempting to return home to Spain after what will be viewed as a failed stint in the U.S. In three appearances, the forward hasn’t managed a shot in a total of 119 minutes.
When asked if searching again for a center forward to fit coach Mike Petke’s system is a must this summer, Waibel smiles.
“I think that’s fair,” he said.
The most difficult — and often the most pricey — position on the field has been in need of a full-time replacement at RSL since it moved on from the club’s all-time leading scorer, Alvaro Saborio, in the summer of 2015. Sebastian Jaime came in, but later moved on. Yura Movsisyan returned, but despite promises of goals in bunches and looking the part in stretches, did not get along with Petke and was eventually waived and loaned to a club in Sweden. Ortuño never panned out.
“Ninety percent of the world is in the same group we’re in — trying to develop forwards, trying to find guys before they become a 20-goal scorer and I think that’s all part of the process,” Waibel said. “When you get them right, it looks easy.”
RSL’s front office has got it right on several fronts. Albert Rusnák, Jefferson Savarino and Marcelo Silva are mainstays in their respective positions. New midfielder Damir Kreilach has settled into his role in the midfield and leads the team in assists with five. Toss in the continued development of its academy products — RSL has routinely had five homegrown players in the starting lineup this year — and it seems the team is on the right track.
“There’s some positions we’re more than happy to go seek out,” Waibel said, “but at the same time, we’re not in the business of stunting the growth of our young guys who should be playing in those spots. Doesn’t mean we won’t.”
RSL does have one Designated Player slot open, which could allow the front office to go for a player in a higher price range. Summer transfer windows, however, are tricky. Players who come to MLS from overseas often need time to adapt, which is why many splashy transfers are made in the winter.
“Overall, I want to improve as a team,” Petke said looking ahead to the transfer window. “Maybe a little more experience in certain areas, quality players that could be brought in with the right attitude. A right attitude is huge.”
Does RSL have the funds to go find the kind of impact goal-scorer it needs to, perhaps, push this young team forward and make it the sort of well-rounded team to fear come playoff time? Waibel said the front office knows what it can spend entering this window.
“I believe that we will continue to try to get this right,” he said.
FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » 8 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 8-8-2, FC Dallas 10-2-5
Last meeting » 1-1 draw at Toyota Stadium on March 3
About FC Dallas » Sits atop the Western Conference with 35 points. … FC Dallas has allowed the fewest goals in the Western Conference with 19 in 17 matches. … FC Dallas is 4-2-1 on the road in 2018. … The club transferred attacking midfielder Mauro Diaz to Shabab Al-Ahli in the UAE league this week. … Winger Roland Lamah leads the team in goals with seven.
About RSL » Scored a season-high four goals in the 4-2 win over Sporting KC on July 4. … Rookie forward Corey Baird has five goals and two assists. … Park City academy product Sebastian Saucedo scored his first home goal at Rio Tinto Stadium in the win over Sporting KC. … RSL improved to 7-1-1 at home in 2018. … RSL scored three first-half goals against KC for the first time since a 5-1 win over Colorado in 2014.