Sandy • Craig Waibel has been around for too long, seen too many changes first-hand and been too involved in helping rebuild Real Salt Lake to not be there when the project set in motion over three years ago reaches finality.
“There’s no reason to walk away from a long-term project half done,” RSL’s general manager told the The Tribune this past week.
It’s not necessarily his call, though.
Waibel, who was originally hired to take over for former general manager Garth Lagerwey in December 2014, is out-of-contract at the end of the year. The 42-year-old longtime MLS defender turned assistant coach turned front office executive must now sit and wait.
There have been no discussions of a new contract between Waibel and RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen as we’re just now beyond the halfway point of the 2018 season. Hansen was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
In Waibel’s three years at the helm, RSL has made the postseason once in 2016. A year ago, a dismal start led to the firing of former coach Jeff Cassar. But under Mike Petke and the club’s push toward acquiring younger players and introducing more and more academy products into the first team, RSL made a fantastic sprint toward the finish line in 2017, only to miss a playoff spot by a single point.
“Is it difficult to take the punches along the way? Yeah,” Waibel said. “No one likes losing anything.”
RSL’s general manager points out that over the last calendar year — from July to July — the franchise has won more regular-season games (17) than any other Western Conference club in MLS. As of this week, RSL is currently tied for fourth place in the West at 9-8-2 and sitting on 29 points. RSL didn’t reach the 29-point threshold in 2017 until August 13 last season.
“The narrative, unfortunately, is most times in entertainment [is] about what you’re not doing,” Waibel said. “The promising pieces of what we’re putting together and what Mike’s been able to do and what we’re able to do with the roster so far outweigh the negative. It’d be impossible for me to say I don’t want to be here. I want to be here. I want to finish this. I want this to be successful.”
Under Waibel, assistant general manager Elliot Fall and RSL’s player personnel staff, the franchise has transitioned from the golden era of the organization — which featured seven straight MLS Cup postseason appearances and four respective cup finals — to putting an emphasis in getting younger, faster, more dynamic. That has come primarily through the club’s academy system, which has as of late, seen a minimum of five homegrown products in the starting lineup on a weekly basis.
RSL has also gone out and signed some of the top young attacking talent in MLS in the last two years by finalizing transfers of 24-year-old attacking midfielder Albert Rusnák (previously playing in the Netherlands) and 21-year-old winger Jefferson Savarino (previously playing in Venezuela). In the offseason, it acquired 29-year-old Croatian midfielder Damir Kreilach, who has settled into a full-time role. Last summer transfer window it signed 29-year-old Uruguayan center back Marcelo Silva, who’d been playing in Spain.
The core of the franchise is nearly assembled, with academy products such as Justen Glad (21), Brooks Lennon (20), Danilo Acosta (20), Sebastian Saucedo (21) and Corey Baird (22) playing their long-desired part in RSL’s future. Landing a go-to goal-scoring forward has been a thorn in the club’s side as of late as Yura Movsisyan was waived in March, and Alfredo Ortuño, signed in the offseason in hopes of being the guy, never earned the minutes necessary from Petke.
Still, and to no surprise, Waibel wants to see this through all the way to the end.
“I would love to stay at the club because I think we have made considerable progress in restructuring this roster over the last couple of years,” Waibel said. “I think we’re still going to see some of the teeter-totter that young guys present, but in two years, these are all proven pros. These guys are all still growing. In two years we certainly have the ability to become more and more consistent. I’m not saying we couldn’t accomplish something sooner.”