Editor's note: The 2007 season has been a wild one for Real Salt Lake, both on and off the field. Between the stadium saga, the coaching change and the revolving player personnel door that's seen more than a dozen players come and go, the club has been in the news often.
RSL owner David Checketts sat down with the Deseret Morning News last week to reflect on the past season, and what to potentially expect in 2008.
DMN: Considering wins have been so tough to come by for Real Salt Lake this year, when did you give up on the 2007 playoffs as a realistic possibility?
Checketts: There was this period of time when Jason (Kreis) took over, particularly the night of the Red Bulls game that we came back and tied, I actually thought maybe there was some hope. Maybe we had enough jump and spark. But then sometime in early August, and I don't remember a particular game, but I realized we probably weren't going to make it. I knew we didn't have the horses to compete in this league. We just didn't have the personnel.
DMN: Is it encouraging then that coach Jason Kreis and his players continually insisted they still believed they could make the playoffs?
Checketts: What I was asking Jason to do was to make sure he was surrounding himself with people on the coaching staff and players who have as much drive as he does. I wanted to get rid of the passive mentality, even if that meant we weren't going to be successful this year. I think the other thing we realized is that when you play on turf, it is harder on guys' bodies than playing on grass. We felt like we had to get younger. We needed to get more pace, but mostly we just needed to change the attitude to a will to win. That's what I've always admired about Jason. I really admire that they still think they can win. I haven't tried to persuade them that it's not possible even though I felt in early August we didn't feel we could get there.
DMN: How would you evaluate Jason Kreis in his first 4 1/2 months as RSL's head coach?
Checketts: I think he's done about as well as he could possibly do. 'Cause he's done everything. The day after the Kansas City game he flew to Argentina, he wanted to look these three kids in the eye, he wanted to watch film, he wanted to meet them face to face before we made a decision like that. I really admire that. This is a guy who's written me five- and six-page e-mails about strategy, player strategy, and managing the cap, and I've tried to tell him eventually he was going to have an ally in doing that, but he was going to have to give me some time to find the right general manager. He has this ability to work that is very much like my own. I like people who work really, really hard and stay at things until they figure them out. It's not easy what he's gone through at all, but he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge and learning, and he's asking for help and guidance, and asking questions. He's very respectful always. I think overall we'd have to say he's laying the foundation for what I think is a very good future.
DMN: Do you think the previous regime took too many risks with player personnel?
Checketts: I don't want to say anything about them, because they're both very good men, Steve (Pastorino) and John (Ellinger). I do think their heart was in the right place. And I was pushing them, frankly, to get better and to give us a chance. They did their best.
DMN: It seems everything we hear about MLS these days is all rosy, with David Beckham, the ESPN TV deal, adidas jersey sponsorship, all the soccer-specific stadiums. What are some concerns you have about MLS?
Checketts: I think there are a lot of positives. ESPN is the biggest one, and their attitude about the game now. It's not impossible now for one of the top 10 plays to be a great goal, and that never used to happen before. John Skipper, who's running programming at ESPN, is a very big soccer fan, and he's made a huge difference. That's all rosy. We have some real rough spots. We have a lot of stadiums that don't look full yet. As long as that team's been in Kansas City, they've got to get a stadium solution there. It will be a very big deal for this league for the Red Bulls stadium to get done ... We've got to make decisions about how much of this designated-player talent we're going to attract and where they're going to come from. There's a lot of rough spots ahead. I'm still not sure about the level of officiating and the consistency of officiating. I actually felt bad for the 20,000 people in Toronto (on Sept. 15) because once you red card a guy like that, the rest of the game is different. You're going to have one team that's grounded to do everything they can from stopping you from scoring, and it's not a very fun game to watch. I express those thoughts to the league office on a regular basis. I bet they're tired of hearing from me about it.
DMN: When the board of governors gets together at MLS Cup this year, do you envision many changes for the 2008 season?
Checketts: I think there's going to be step-ups, but I can't tell you that I know about any specific changes coming right away. I think our schedule was really bad this year, and it's going to help to have a 14th team, so you don't have teams taking byes, and having teams playing three games in seven days and then having 10 days off. That's bad for teams, it was actually bad for us a couple times when we had some momentum and then a long layoff. I'd like to explore in Utah, if it's possible, a Monday Night Futbol kind of thing during the summer. Whether or not the league will really consider it, I'm not sure, I just think it would work well here.
DMN: You've said you think the Sandy stadium is going to be the best in MLS. I'm sure every owner who's opened a stadium thinks his stadium is going to be the best, so why do think Utah's will be better?
Checketts: First, isn't everything in real estate about location? This is the best location anywhere in soccer in the U.S. Chicago is so far out of Chicago, and even Denver is a long way from Denver, and even the Home Depot Center is way south of Los Angeles. Now (ours) really is in the city. It's right on I-15, the main artery for the whole valley. I don't think we could've had a better location for ease of access and to be on people's radar, because eventually there will be a huge sign right out there on I-15 that will announce upcoming games. There's a million cars a year that go by that sign. The first thing is location. The second thing is Gino Rosetti, the architect who designed the Home Depot Center, did Chicago and is doing New York, has done a lot of stadiums, and he's enormously talented. So he's got all of this learning, now coupled with the fact that I've been to every major international soccer stadium in the world, so I started pushing on him my ideas. He's the one who's saying to (MLS Commissioner) Don Garber and others that it is going to be the best one we've built by far. And the setting of the mountains in the east and looking out at the Oquirrhs on the west, it's just going to be great.
DMN: Will beer be sold at the stadium, and was that a simple decision?
Checketts: Yes. It wasn't a simple decision. I'm just one of those guys who doesn't like to be at a sporting event and have someone walk in behind me and spill beer down my neck. It's not because I don't drink, it's also because there's a real liability that's coming on with these stadium owners. The reality is, when we polled our fans, both drinkers and nondrinkers said we want to be able to get a beer if we want. So we're going to sell beer, but we're going to manage it. There's going to be certain sections of the stadium where you can drink, and there will be others who'd rather not be around it.
DMN: Will people see an increase in ticket prices at the new stadium?
Checketts: We're working on all of those pricing plans now. And it's almost a science, it's really not an art. It's about what do we have to do to pay the bills. Judging by the fact we want to be able to spend enough money on a designated player and we want the team to be something special and get better, and we have this relationship with Real Madrid that's going to bring them here every other year, all of that falls into a pattern. If you're asking me will people pay more in the new stadium then Rice-Eccles Stadium, then the answer is yes.
DMN: From a public relations standpoint a lot seemed to go wrong during the stadium process. Why do you believe that was the case and what could you have done differently or better?
Checketts: It was a bruising battle for a lot of reasons. It would've been a lot easier if it could've been privately financed. This is a polarized political state. There's a mayor in Salt Lake City who's a lightning rod for a lot of things. He was supportive. What the mayor of Salt Lake County did to us was extraordinary. He basically told me every week for six months that this was going to get done, and then Monday in January out of the blue he called me and told me it wasn't going to get done. When I asked him what do I have to do to get it done, and he told me, and then I offered that up, he said it still wouldn't get done.
It was at that point that a light turned on in my head and said I'm in the middle of a political battle. This is really not about soccer, and it's not even about economics, it's about politics. It's about who likes Greg Curtis or Rocky Anderson or Peter Corroon. It's about all their political careers. It's about will the governor step in and take this over, and why would he wait until then to do something. He wanted other people to take care of it. It was never about me.
comments on this story
I just became a symbol of a battle about public vs. private funding. I have a pretty thick skin that way. I know that what we're going to build here is going to stimulate the economy, create jobs, enhance the real estate value in that area. It's going to be something the citizens of Utah are very proud of, and it's going to be something they do not pay for. It's going to come out of tourist dollars that can only be used for things like this. It can't be used for roads, schools and all of the things people think we're taking money from. It was portrayed unfairly, and it was interpreted in a way that was unfair and untrue. But it's going forward and it's all behind us.