The 2020 season was a disaster for RSL on and off the field, but there’s hope for next year under new ownership

Early optimism gave way to a series of setbacks that were largely triggered by ownership and the front office

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake Corey Baird (17), coach Freddy Juarez and team celebrated in happier times during the 2019 season, a high-water mark in the team's recent history. But optimism for 2020 gave way to the pandemic and ownership and front office troubles. RSL is hoping for a fresh start under new ownership in 2021.

The Real Salt Lake organization, with its three teams, entered 2020 on a high. Expectations, enthusiasm, past success — it all felt like it was finally starting to come together.

Think about it. The Real Monarchs were coming off their first title in the USL Championship in franchise history, knocking off the top team in the league in the playoffs to do it. RSL had finished third in the Western Conference — its highest finish in years — and made the playoffs for the second straight season.

The Royals, despite missing the playoffs the previous two years, were brimming with enthusiasm and hunger after getting a new coach, naming a new captain and many players having productive offseasons.

It stood to reason that 2020 could have been a special for year for all three teams, or at very least one or two of them. But promise turned to disaster almost as quickly as a hummingbird’s heartbeat. Now the organization enters 2021 with one less team and an ownership transition that has dragged on since late August.

RSL fans, employees, players, coaches and executives — not to mention the soccer world at large — are waiting to see what individual or group will end up buying the two teams left and the facilities that come with them. Recently retired legend Kyle Beckerman is one of them.

“I’m hopeful a new owner comes and he’s excited and he wants to give RSL the best possibility to compete and really go after things and try [to] fight for everything that’s out there,” Beckerman said.

Who that new owner will be, though, is the biggest question going into 2021. Ryan Smith, who recently bought a controlling stake in the Utah Jazz, is still in the running to buy RSL after an initial meeting with Dell Loy Hansen did not go well. But another potential ownership group has recently emerged.

Major League Soccer will take over the sales process from Hansen on Jan. 8 if he can’t find a buyer before then. That outcomes seems probable at this point, especially because league commissioner Don Garber himself said earlier this month that it was more likely than not that that would happen.

With the inevitability of new ownership comes potential. Beckerman and coach Freddy Juarez said back in August that whoever the owner is, they hope he or she wants to do whatever it takes to win. Juarez said the new owner should be “passionate” and “supportive.”

Fortunately for the RSL squad, much of its core will return for 2021. Midfielders Damir Kreilach and Pablo Ruiz, and defender Aaron Herrera signed multi-year contract extensions. Additionally, the club exercised the options of defender Justen Glad, goalkeeper David Ochoa and midfielder Everton Luiz, among others. Those decisions represent the bulk of the regular starting lineup.

RSL does need a bona fide goal scorer, a fact Juarez and several players have not been expressing. But general manager Elliot Fall has said while the ownership situation is still in flux, he most likely won’t be able to get a player using discretionary funds, which is how strikers are usually acquired in MLS. Fall, however, has also said there is flexibility in the roster and with the salary cap for him to improve the team.

Juarez also looks to be returning as coach. While the club has not announced anything specifically related to him, it did announce that serving under him will be lead assistant Tryone Marshall, Rob Rogers and Matt Glaeser. Goalkeeper coach Todd Hoffard and assistant coach Steffen Seibert are no longer with the team.

RSL also has its own stadium, Rio Tinto, and a training facility that is considered one of if not the best in MLS. It also has an academy that has players regularly signing contracts with either RSL or the Monarchs.

Maybe the new owner will have deep pockets and give the go-ahead to go out and buy a dynamic (and expensive) player the likes of Carlos Vela. Maybe the new owner will invest in other parts of the team, like specialized coaches or a sports psychologist. Maybe the new owner will more fully staff what has been a very lean front office since a round of pandemic-triggered layoffs and furloughs.

All of that remains to be seen. What’s clear, however, is the organization would like to truly hit the reset button from top to bottom after the swift and precipitous fall of so many within RSL.

It started with a protest. Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23. Several sports leagues decided not to play their scheduled games on Aug. 26 in response to the tragedy, including RSL and LAFC. Hansen took exception to that the following morning on a radio show.

Fans and athletes from various sports decried Hansen’s comments and called for him to sell the team. Stories then started surfacing about Hansen and his history of racist behavior, prompting investigations by MLS and the National Women’s Soccer League. He eventually announced he would sell all the teams and their facilities, and so far has sold the Royals, who will move to Kansas City.

Then came the allegations against Andy Carroll, the organization’s chief business officer, and more investigations by MLS and the NWSL. He allegedly created a toxic culture within the RSL workplace, aided at least in part by Hansen. The results of the MLS investigation into the organization has completed, Garber said, and its release is expected soon.

After a perilous 2020, there’s nowhere to go but up for the RSL organization.