The story of Real Salt Lake (cont.)
In some ways, you could argue that Salt Lake's run to the CCL final is already the greatest international accomplishment in the history of U.S. club soccer. NASL teams never bothered to compete in the continental championship, and the two MLS teams that have won CONCACAF club titles -- D.C. United in 1998 and Los Angeles in 2000 -- had to win just a three-round knockout tournament on friendly U.S. soil.
D.C. United's Marco Etcheverry-led team went on to win the Interamerican Cup, defeating South American champion Vasco da Gama over two legs, but that triumph came with caveats too: Vasco waived the right to host the return leg in Brazil (instead holding it in Florida), and the Interamerican Cup had such little gravitas that it hasn't been contested since.
Salt Lake, meanwhile, had to play 10 games to reach the final, including five difficult road matches against teams like Mexico's Cruz Azul and Costa Rica's Saprissa. Since 2008, the CONCACAF club championship has been organized more like the UEFA Champions League, with a true group stage and two-legged elimination rounds with games played home and away. (Unlike its UEFA counterpart, the CCL plays its final over two legs, not in a netural-venue single game.)
The new format gives the CCL winner more credibility, but the added games also require quality depth, which is rare in MLS. That's not the case with Salt Lake, which is so deep that its second-stringers won convincingly on the road against New England's first-choice team on April 9. "In every game we have a solid guy in every position, and usually it's solid veterans," says midfielder Ned Grabavoy. "But they've also done a good job picking young players and bringing them along at the right pace. I think depth is a huge reason we've gone so far in this tournament with all these extra games during the season."
Kreis's motto is simple: The Team Is The Star. Salt Lake's roster isn't top heavy with a couple of overpaid players. Instead it uses the successful e pluribus unum formula that made Houston and New England so successful in MLS during the mid-2000s. "I don't think every professional athlete in the world could buy into our philosophy as a club," Kreis says. "Professional sports lead to big egos. We don't have room or time for that."
Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey have kept together the core players of Salt Lake's rise, a mix of nationalities and talents that has found uncommon chemistry. Midfielder Kyle Beckerman, the deadlocked captain, is the team's hard-tackling heart and soul. Morales is the skillful creative hub, as well as a deadly threat on free kicks. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando keeps the mood light in the locker room and plays beyond his 5-foot-10 height between the pipes.
Center backs Nat Borchers and Jámison Olave are a towering presence on the back line, and the targets up top are Espíndola and Saborío, a pair of coldblooded veteran finishers.
Because this is MLS, Salt Lake has had to make some hard salary-cap decisions. RSL lost its top goal-scorers from 2008 (Robbie Findley) and '09 (Yura Movsisyan), a pair of young forwards who rode their success to Europe. But their replacements have excelled. Saborío, a 29-year-old Costa Rican, scored 18 goals in all competitions last season, while Paulo Jr. has found the net five times in limited duty.
"We've tried to do advance planning when we've understood guys' intentions [to leave]," says Lagerwey, a former MLS player, lawyer, TV commentator and SI.com columnist who joined his old Duke roommate Kreis in Salt Lake. "We worked hard to keep this core and rewarded guys with contracts."
As a result, several players are locked up through the end of 2012 (Morales, Olave, Paulo, Espíndola), 2013 (Beckerman, Rimando) and 2014 (Saborío, Borchers, midfielder Will Johnson). There's a definite window of opportunity.
Still, signing Saborío during the past offseason presented a potential threat to the notion of the team being the star. Salt Lake had to purchase his contract from the Swiss club Sion, which meant Saborío became RSL's first Designated Player, the tag MLS gives to star players whose wages aren't limited by the league's salary cap.
Concerned about the possible fallout, Lagerwey let the players know that Saborío's DP status was due to the transfer fee paid to acquire him (around $700,000) and not to his salary, which isn't the highest on the team. (Morales, who made $252,500 last year according to the MLS Players Union, is the top wage-earner.) "A lot of [MLS] teams bring in Designated Players that are no better than their current players," says Lagerwey. "It reduces the weight of expectations if you let everyone know that Sabo's not our highest-paid player."
The players say they're aware of the situation and appreciate the front office's candor. "What's good is [Saborío] buys into that," says Rimando. "He has this title of the DP, and he plays like one, but he's not like one in the locker room. He's one of the guys, and he wants to be, which is good."
By keeping its players together, Salt Lake has been able to fine-tune a style that combines Latino, North American and (thanks to Jamaican Andy Williams) Caribbean influences. The result is entertaining soccer that wins games.
"We have a style that I would call mixed between American and Latin, a new style," says Morales. "We work very hard in the American way, and we have a Latin game where we try to take care of the ball. It's not just the Latinos, either. This team has an idea of playing that's perhaps different from other [MLS] teams and more entertaining."
Nor is it a coincidence that Salt Lake's Spanish-speaking players have mixed with their English-speaking teammates far more than is usually common on soccer teams. Kreis says that when he played in Dallas there was a distinct divide between the Spanish and English speakers, but that's not the case with RSL, which asks its players to learn English to help foster a long-term commitment.
The effort matters. Morales and Olave, among others, have learned English from scratch. Players from nine different countries have connected. "I've been over for empanadas at Fabián Espíndola's house," says Johnson, a Canadian. Such is Morales' investment in the team that he approached Lagerwey last year and asked what he could to do to help Saborío's adjustment to Salt Lake City.
Saborío recalls Morales' gesture fondly. "He was one of the first people to help me look for a house and find a car dealership," Saborío says. "I was very thankful." After his first season on loan in Salt Lake, Saborío wanted to stay.
"Javier's kind of that bridge" between cultures, says Beckerman. "And the team is the star. We do buy into that, but it's not all true. Javier and Saborío, these guys are stars, but they're buying into it. That's what really helps it go."
"The locker room has some great personalities, but nobody has the mentality that they're bigger than the team," says defender Chris Wingert. "In soccer that's as important as any sport because there's more guys. If you're playing basketball you can have the ball every time down the court. If you're the best player in the league, your team is going to be pretty successful. That's not the case in soccer, especially not in our league."