Utah club helped pave way for success of new MLS franchise
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
The landscape of professional soccer in Utah has changed dramatically in the past year.
Make no mistake about it, Chris Agnello and Stacy McNicol are thrilled with the evolution of their passion, but it's only natural for a small part of them to be sad.
For five years, the now-defunct Utah Blitzz minor league soccer franchise occupied their lives around the clock.
They were there from Day 1, overseeing everything from the players to the mascot to the sponsors. They started out as coach and director of operations, and eventually became co-owners. When times got tough financially during the five-year existence of the franchise, McNicol put her house up as collateral which was also the team headquarters to keep the club afloat.
It was a very stressful life, so now when they go to work for Real Salt Lake, and in turn see the success of soccer in Utah, the sadness of seeing the Blitzz's disappearance is overshadowed by the tremendous preliminary success of RSL in this market.
"We're not necessarily money people. Stacy and I did it from our hearts," said Agnello, the former coach, general manager and co-owner of the Blitzz. "We didn't get into it hoping we'd get anything out of it financially. Sure we wanted to have jobs and survive like everybody, but our return on investment is more leaving a legacy, and maybe paving the way for (Real Salt Lake) in some small way."
The Utah Blitzz may have quietly drifted into anonymity, but if you look close enough, you'll see bits and pieces of the Blitzz scattered throughout the Real Salt Lake organization and soccer community in Utah.
Agnello is a third assistant with RSL.
McNicol is an assistant director of operations.
Former goalie Chad Sackett is on the ticket-sales staff, in addition to a practice-squad player. Former defender Will Cummins is also a practice-squad player.
"It's actually a great change for me. There were pros and cons to the Blitzz," said Agnello, 37, who starred for Woods Cross High School in the early '80s. "The drawback is you carry the weight of the world. It is all you. Every single decision in that franchise, and even 50 percent of administrative decisions, were me."
Now, he and McNicol get to enjoy a much simpler life.
"Being in this position is much better. I don't have to stress as much over things because of where I'm at," said Agnello. "I can't express how grateful I am to John (Ellinger) and Steve (Pastorino) to be involved with this."
When Major League Soccer first announced that it was expanding into Utah on July 12 last year, nobody knew it meant for the future of the Utah Blitzz.
Originally there was talk about maybe jumping up from second division to the first division. Then there were rumors about dropping down a level into the amateur PDL.
By that time, the future of the Blitzz was much more stable.
Before the start of the 2004 season, Agnello and McNicol sold a majority of the organization to the Ken Garff family, "who saw value in our franchise," said Agnello.
The financially stability not only helped the organization increase player salaries back to a respectable level, but it enabled Agnello and McNicol to once again experience the joys of a simple paycheck every two weeks.
Despite the euphoria bouncing around Salt Lake City about the expansion MLS franchise, the Blitzz went about their consistent business of being the best team out West and even finished the year with its second National Championship in four years.
It wasn't long after the dramatic penalty-kick championship match that the final decision was made.
"It was a really easy decision," said Agnello. "Jon Garff, Stacy and myself got together and talked about it and realized that the best thing for soccer is for our organization to step aside and not hinder their ability to succeed, however small that may have been.
"In this game, every little bit helps, and every little bit can hurt. With us being a sport trying to establish itself, the last thing we needed was one more distraction."
And with the decision, so ended the professional careers of some Utah Blitzz icons like Adolfo, Guti, Breza, Cairel and Fadi players the gung-ho soccer fans in Utah won't soon forget.
Their impact is still very-much being felt on the youth fields in Utah.
During his five years guiding the Blitzz, Agnello was able to lure players like Rich Breza, Will Cummins, Matt Evans, Adolfo Ovalle, John Cairel, Damian Munoz, Alejandro Gutierrez and Glenn Puckrin to Utah from around the world.
Amazingly, they didn't leave when the Blitzz folded.
"These guys are all now coaching in youth leagues, and they came here because of us," said Agnello. "There's at least a dozen guys I can think of who live here full time because they love Utah. That alone will raise the level of the game because they're able to go back into the community and help coach these kids."
For McNicol, within a couple months after general manager Steve Pastorino was hired, she was offered a front-office job with the organization.
Agnello's situation was different, as Ellinger was still sifting through potential assistant coaches.
So in late October of last year, Agnello accepted an offer from Salt Lake County to manage the Spence Eccles Fieldhouse in addition to assisting the county in other soccer programs.
Within a few months, Agnello had an opportunity to sit down and chat with Ellinger, who decided to make the former Blitzz coach his third assistant.
"I wasn't going to pass it up, obviously," said Agnello.And just like that, his and McNicol's lives have regained some sort of normalcy.
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