The story of RSL: A once-wretched MLS club is making history
RSL can make MLS history by winning CONCACAF Champions League
The duo of Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerway have presided over RSL's turnaround
Shrewd acquisitions have made RSL the deepest squad in MLS
In the summer of 2007, a desperate rookie coach dropped everything in the middle of the MLS season and flew to Argentina in search of a future. Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis was just 34, his team was in last place and he needed a major talent upgrade. But could he risk everything by signing a midfielder he'd never seen play in person before?
One night in Buenos Aires, Kreis had dinner with Javier Morales, a 27-year-old playmaker who was looking to move after one season in the Spanish second division. For Kreis, the secret of signing players isn't just in their on-field ability, even though Morales had a good highlight DVD, full of ball skills and technique and tactical smarts.
It's also about the secret in their eyes.
"What is most important to me with these guys is meeting them," says Kreis. "All that stuff stands out when you watch a DVD, but you have no idea what kind of person he is. Seeing his DVD was maybe 65 percent, but talking to him and looking in his eyes fills that other 35 percent. It might have been the other way around."
"Javier was a 100 percenter. He sold me."
As the two men spoke that night, they formed a personal connection -- and Kreis made an impression of his own presenting Salt Lake as an enticing destination to a player who had been skeptical.
"The truth was that I didn't know the city, I didn't know the language and when I read about the team they were in last place," says Morales. "But what convinced me to come was Jason. He spoke about being a young coach and his expectations for the team. It interested me, this challenge of joining a team that wasn't very good. And now, four years later, we're a great team."
These days Morales is the best player on a team that has become the class of MLS. In his first two years, Kreis took Salt Lake from league laughingstock to 2009 MLS Cup champion. RSL is 4-0 in the young MLS season, and its 34-game home unbeaten run in all competitions may well be the longest in the world after Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk recently ended its 55-game streak. And tonight Salt Lake will seek to make MLS history when it meets Mexican champion Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final (10 p.m. ET, FSC, TeleFutura).
If Salt Lake can take down Rayados in the two-leg final, it will become the first MLS team ever to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup, competing against the world's continental champions (including perhaps Barcelona or Manchester United) in Japan this December.
Kreis has built a formidable team in the last four years, never straying from his policy of interviewing each prospective player, from star forward Álvaro Saborío to the team's last pick in the MLS draft. But team owner Dave Checketts has a special place in his memory for Kreis's first recruiting trip, when he signed Morales and forward Fabián Espíndola during those desperate days in '07.
"Morales and Espíndola were two huge pickups," Checketts says. "Jason knew we didn't have the horses to compete. I'd been warned a little bit about [previous coach] John Ellinger not being fond of South or Central American players, but I didn't realize it until Jason came back with these guys. It made a gigantic difference."
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