What RSL’s recent long-term deals say about the trajectory of the club

Real Salt Lake has given contract extensions of up to five years for some of its core players.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake and General Manager Elliot Fall during a news conference at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. Fall says the club has been intent on locking up its youthful core long term, creating some stability for the franchise going forward.

When Real Salt Lake signs a player, every deal has its unique circumstances. Some are exercised contract options. Some are one-year deals. Some come with options for a second year.

But in the past year, RSL has been signing players to longer contract extensions. The most recent was Justen Glad, who re-signed with the club for four years.

There have been others like Glad. Corey Baird and Aaron Herrera signed four-year extensions in the past year. Pablo Ruiz — who in 2020 was returning from a loan to an Austrian club — signed a five-year extension. And Damir Kreilach signed a three-year extension, with the final year being a club option.

Those signings point to the long-term vision of RSL: build around Kreilach, keep the young and talented guys around as long as possible, and continue making additions that will bolster the team on and off the field. While it’s yet to be officially announced, RSL has already made its first outside addition this offseason when it agreed to terms with Rubio Rubín.

RSL general manager Elliot Fall told The Salt Lake Tribune that the front office is working on a “project” over the next three to five years, and that the longer contracts the team has executed in the past year fit into that project in various ways.

For instance, Glad, Baird, Herrera and Ruiz are 24 years old or younger. They’ve continued to improve and gain the trust of the coaching staff and the front office.

“They were on contracts that we, quite frankly, felt they had outperformed and that they had earned greater investment from the club, both financially and in terms of years committed to them and their development and their careers,” Fall said of the four.

Of that group, Baird has been the only player who has dipped in form. After a 2018 season that led to him being named Rookie of the Year, Baird’s next two seasons weren’t nearly as productive. He scored five goals and added four assists in 2019, and scored just two goals in 2020. In July of 2019, he talked about wanting to increase his production.

But RSL believes in Baird so much that last January, it inked him to a four-year extension. Fall at the time lauded his work rate and versatility, and said it was a priority that last offseason to lock him up long-term.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Damir Kreilach (6) celebrates his hat trick against the L.A. Galaxy during the second half of the MLS soccer match Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Sandy at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Kreilach, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. At 31, he is the oldest among the players who have recently signed long extensions. But he might be the player who has proved to have the most impact both on and off the field. He led the team in scoring and shots in 2020, and has risen to a leadership role in just three seasons with RSL.

“Damir is a guy who’s established himself as a leader in this group, a leader in this locker room and a really core piece that we want to build around for the project we are working on for the next three to five years,” Fall said. “And Damir is a guy that fits that not just on the field, but in the locker room and throughout the organization.”

The longer contracts are also indicative of another reality. Major League Soccer players are increasingly getting attention from leagues around the world. And if a club has a quality player, it might lose that player sooner rather than later. It appears that on some level, Fall — and perhaps the league as a whole — is trying to prevent that.

“I think it speaks to the increased level of player in the United States and in Major League Soccer that we are now continuously speaking with players that have options all over the world,” Fall said. “And that means that we are going to have to commit to contracts of length that in MLS were less common several years ago.”

Over the next several years, Fall said, RSL has a one-year, three-year, and five-year plan centered around how it wants to build the roster. He did not disclose the specifics of each plan, but said it’s generally similar to how the club has operated over the past few seasons.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird (10) brings the ball down field, in MLS acton between Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls at Rio Tinto Stadium, Saturday, March 7, 2020.

Those plans, however, could change. Fall said any plan is fluid and contingent on if a player over or underperforms. But ownership also matters. And right now, RSL is still waiting to see what new ownership will look like.

But the ownership limbo doesn’t mean Fall and his team have stopped planning for the future. And he’s well aware then whenever new ownership does emerge, the vision of the club’s future will be a give-and-take.

“We obviously, in our group and in our organization, have those plans that we believe are in the best interest of the club and we will be presenting those plans to new ownership as soon as we have them, to both present what we believe is the strongest way forward for the club and where we need support from ownership and investment from ownership,” Fall said. “But also working with ownership to implement their vision for the club and for soccer in this community as a part of those plans.”

Much RSL’s plans surround roster building. But Fall made it clear that embedded within those plans is winning. And in giving some of the team’s main players longer contracts, the club could be indicating that it believes those players give them the best chance to do that long-term.

“Unquestionably, our long-term vision is to put a championship contender on the field year in and year out,” Fall said. “That is what this club has been, can be and should be, and that’s what our fan base and our community deserve.”