We’re not the biggest spenders in the league, and we don’t need to be. —RSL general manager Craig Waibel
SANDY — Management and scouts have searched the earth looking for the right player combinations. Several of those players are already thrilling crowds in Utah with their speed and skill. Now, those players are growing through experience.
Were you thinking of the Utah Jazz? This applies to them, too. But that other major league team in town, Real Salt Lake, are taking the same approach. RSL doesn’t have the most money, or the flashiest market, but, boy, does it have plans.
This week, RSL took another step into the future by exercising the purchase option on 20-year-old forward Jefferson Savarino. This came days after signing coach Mike Petke to a multiyear contract. Savarino had been on six-month loan from Zulia FC in his native Venezuela. An upcoming move could include securing 20-year-old Brooks Lennon, who was on loan from England's Liverpool FC this season. Real already has speedy Joao Plata, 25, under a multiyear contract, as well as 23-year-old Slovakian midfielder Albert Rusnak.
On the other end of the calendar are 38-year-old Nick Rimando and 35-year-old Kyle Beckerman, easily the team’s best-known players. But the remaking of the team that won the MLS Cup in 2009, and reached the finals in 2013, continues.
Petke said at Savarino’s press conference on Thursday, “I’m very excited for today.”
And even more excited about tomorrow.
While the aforementioned players may become international stars, they’re not yet there. But they’re doing nicely. Real have stated intention to build via its development programs, the Real Monarchs, and by utilizing Real Academy in Herriman, where first-rate facilities will attract famous teams for training.
All will raise Real’s profile.
The idea is to nurture young players, because it’s easier to keep good people around if they grew up here.
“We’re not the biggest spenders in the league, and we don’t need to be,” general manager Craig Waibel says.
At the moment, RSL is a blend of youth and experience, a team that rated among the league’s best in the second half of last season. Savarino was spellbinding during one five-game tear in which he generated three goals and two assists.
Rimando and Beckerman built the franchise, but the young players intend to sustain it.
Before comparisons with the Jazz go too far, Waibel pauses to differentiate.
“I think one of the differences in soccer is we’re in a world market,” he says. “But what we interpret as great players in a world market are the ones who have the most press. Quite frankly, some of those are world-class players.
“In terms of a good player versus a great player, a lot of people forget that at some point the greatest player was just good.”
That’s where RSL comes in.
It wants to get them while they’re on the uptick.
“So I think we have a great core of young talent,” Waibel says. “Are they world-class great players? Well, we need to be a world class market and league and have exposure around the world for other people to decide that for us.”
Major League Soccer has dramatically changed, even since Real last played in the MLS Cup final in 2013.
“It’s a massively different league,” Waibel says.
The league has added high-profile foreign stars and grown from within, meanwhile gravitating toward individual team identities. Los Angeles can attract glamorous players, often later in their careers, such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard. Seattle draws coffee-crazy millennials by adding the likes of Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro. Toronto opens its checkbook for such well-known players as Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
None of the top 30 players in the league, according an ESPN FC ranking in August, plays for Real.
Not a problem, Waibel says.
“What happens now is that more clubs are going to become more specific in who they are, and embrace what their model is. Embracing who they are as a club, and embracing how they want to play, and attacking it their way,” Waibel says.
So what is Real's identity?
“We are a club that definitely believes in developing talent,” Waibel says. “We need to embrace who we are and just be better than anybody else on identifying talent.”
He flashes a smile, saying owner Dell Loy Hansen reminds him “every day” of that mandate.
“That’s all I have to do — just be better than anybody else.”
Surely, the Jazz can relate.