John Kimball listened as Major League Soccer’s chief business officers talked about the league’s three Canadian teams and how they had to relocate to the United States for a second straight season due to travel restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the Real Salt Lake interim president listened, it dawned on him: “We have the facilities. We have connections to housing. We’ve hosted tournaments for the Premier Lacrosse League and the National Women’s Soccer League. Why not us?” Kimball thought.
So Kimball brainstormed with Tara Cupello, the team’s chief financial officer, and Michelle Hyncik, vice president of legal. It turned out Cupello and Hyncik had contacts with the Vancouver Whitecaps, so they reached and gauged the team’s interest in making Utah its temporary home.
“I just felt that they deserved the opportunity to have the best season that they could possibly have and to try to make a scenario that would allow them to be able to succeed,” Kimball told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The Whitecaps arrived in Utah on April 2. They’ve played three “home” games at Rio Tinto Stadium and hold practices a few blocks south at America First Field in Sandy. RSL faced Vancouver for the first time this season Friday and was the home team.
Vancouver players and staff lived in a Portland, Oregon, hotel for some of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. Travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada made it impossible for any family members to join.
So when the Whitecaps were shopping around for a state in which to live for part of the 2021 season, they wanted a situation that could feel as close to home as possible. Axel Schuster, chief executive officer and sporting director of the Whitecaps, told The Tribune that the club looked at California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona and Utah as possible locations.
Upon choosing Utah, Schuster said RSL offered all its contacts in housing so Vancouver’s operations team could find places to live for everyone. Among those connections, Kimball said, is Wasatch Properties, which is owned by outgoing RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen.
The Whitecaps secured condominiums mostly in downtown Salt Lake City and Herriman, while some are staying in Sandy and Draper. The team’s traveling party that came to Utah consists of more than 85 people, including players, coaches, various staff members and executives, and about 40 family members. There are also five dogs and a cat.
Whitecaps goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau is in Herriman, near RSL’s training facility, with his wife, Cristina. They welcomed their newborn daughter, Lyvia, on June 1, in Utah. Crépeau told The Tribune that they plan to file for dual citizenship for Lyvia, whose parents are both Canadian.
Crépeau said he’s spent time with RSL keeper Zac MacMath and defender Astone Morgan, both of whom played with him in Vancouver and the Canadian National Team, respectively. But other than that, the two teams’ different schedules haven’t made for much mingling between them.
It’s a slightly different story, however, for the two coaching staffs and front offices. Kimball said friendships have formed over the past few months. One Whitecaps executive even works right outside his office, he said.
RSL coach Freddy Juarez said he and Vancouver coach Mark Dos Santos spoke over the phone a couple of times during preseason about getting both coaching staffs together for coffee once everyone received their COVID-19 vaccinations. They also want to hold a soccer game against both staffs. Those things haven’t yet happened, Juarez said, but are on the horizon.
“It’s something that we’re looking forward to,” Juarez said.
Vancouver homegrown midfielder Patrick Metcalf is living at a complex in downtown Salt Lake City, where he said many of the players live. He said they like to hang out at The Gateway and have also enjoyed the City Creek Center.
Crépeau said he’s visited Antelope Island and also taken in the landscape of Little Sahara in Nephi. Metcalf added that the Bonneville Salt Flats is the No. 1 destination the team wants to hit before it leaves Utah.
In terms of food, Dos Santos said the coaching staff likes Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana for pizza. When asked what SLC coffee place has become a go-to, he joked and said the espresso machine next to the Rio Tinto locker room the team is currently using.
Schuster did not want to specify a favorite place to eat for fear of leaving one out, but said he’s enjoyed several cuisines in the downtown area from Brazilian to American to Italian.
“We have been everywhere,” Schuster said. “We found a lot of good places.”
Game days in SLC have plenty of similarities with those in Vancouver. But one aspect that the players have particularly appreciated is having the ability to put their signage and logos in their “home” locker room.
Because the Utah Royals FC moved to Kansas City late last year, their locker room wasn’t being used. Having that space available was a selling point to the Whitecaps and something Kimball brought up in conversations with them.
“It’s temporary, but it feels good to see that,” Crépeau said. “It’s like in Vancouver, basically. We have our crest on the wall. Yes, we have that locker room, which is good. But in that Rio Tinto Stadium, there’s about a few square feet that belongs to us. It’s our locker room. It’s our media room. … Having those little details makes it a little bit easier and nicer.”
The locker room situation is an amalgamation of how welcomed Vancouver has been made to feel while in Utah. Every player and executive spoke highly of the city and the RSL organization’s help. Schuster pointed out how grateful he was that RSL made available its entire medical network.
“We get treated in these things like everyone at Real Salt Lake,” Schuster said. “I cannot express enough how thankful we are for that support.”
The Whitecaps have not been able to have fans at their “home” games all season, but will have a small number allowed in the stadium for their next three after Friday’s matchup with RSL. The lack of fans so far has made Dos Santos particularly eager to return to Vancouver so they can get some competitive advantage back.
“We want to go home,” Dos Santos said. “And it’s not a criticism towards the city because it’s been great. But we just want to go home now. We want to be with our fans. I think it’s getting long right now, in my opinion.”
The club announced recently that it will stay in Utah through July. And while for some that day can’t come soon enough, it’s clear living in Utah has left a good impression on the Whitecaps.
“We will do marketing for Salt Lake when we go back to Vancouver,” Schuster said.
RSL VS. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
At Rio Tinto Stadium
When • Friday, 8 p.m.
TV • KMYU