SANDY — Utah Royals Football Club and Real Salt Lake staged a virtual midday to midnight extravaganza, Saturday at Rio Tinto, much to the delight of all who appreciate the nuances of a single word: Goooooooooooooooooooooal!
There were about 11,000 empty seats at the first match of the day — Royals vs. Seattle — but that’s actually not terrible. Utah’s average of 8,578 ranks second of nine teams in the National Women’s Soccer League. That’s half of what Portland draws, but twice as many as mega-markets such as Houston, Seattle, Washington and New York.
That two major league soccer matches would be held in the same day in Utah wasn’t something anybody could have foreseen 13 years ago, when RSL first arrived. There had been other tortured iterations of pro soccer in Utah, but nothing stuck, until big-thinking former owner Dave Checketts rode in from New York.
That first home match, in 2005, didn’t occur under ideal conditions. Though a nice crowd of 25,287 attended, the event was staged on artificial turf, in a Rice-Eccles Stadium built for American football, not international. Brian Dunseth scored the first home goal in franchise history.
Whether there would be a follow-up, he wasn’t sure.
“Unfortunately, the honest truth is I lived through contraction in Major League Soccer. I lived through seasons where you weren’t even sure you’d be able to pick up a paycheck the following month,” said Dunseth, who played for four MLS teams before landing in Utah. “Not for a second did I ever see what this has become.”
He didn’t foresee Real becoming a solidly entrenched MLS team, much less winning a championship. He didn’t anticipate a United Soccer League team like the Monarchs or a National Women’s Soccer League team such as the Royals joining in, either. Mostly significantly, he didn’t imagine the massive academy/practice complex in Herriman.
Which raises this question of just how soccer-ish Salt Lake has become.
“I think absolutely Salt Lake is a soccer city,” Dunseth said.
This season, Real is 15th of 23 teams in MLS attendance, but it has a smaller stadium capacity than all but seven others. Last year, RSL operated at 95 percent capacity, despite missing the playoffs.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” Dunseth said. “Us old guys, we’re the Dick Butkuses of Major League Soccer. We went through the terrible days of training at elementary schools and on artificial surfaces and high school stadiums … and now to see this, it’s incredible.”
One of the appealing things about pro soccer in the U.S. is that it isn’t laboring under false fantasies. It doesn't expect to take over the country, just to carve out some space. That has happened. Nobody looks at the newspaper sports section under MLS standings and says, “What’s that?” anymore. The league is in its 22nd season, a startup no longer.
But it won’t overtake football or basketball in Utah. Eight thousand at an NWSL game is still a small share of the market. People still don’t discuss the previous week’s soccer games in a checkout line, the way they do football or the Jazz. But those that do follow are fully engaged. As Royals color commentator Carla Haslam puts it, “It’s kind of an all-or-nothing crowd.”
Is there a chance to attract the casual sports fan?
“That’s the next step,” she said.
Regardless, soccer seems to have found a place on the American sports landscape, Utah included. In its first season in Utah, the 6-year-old NWSL is still finding its way. But with famous U.S. National Team players such as Orlando’s Alex Morgan, Sky Blue’s Carli Lloyd, Seattle’s Megan Rapinoe, and Utah’s Christen Press, there is reason to believe this iteration of women’s soccer could survive.
“There are soccer stars in here every week,” Haslam said.
Utahns have yet to fully recognize the level of talent they’re watching, according to Dunseth, who calls Royals coach Laura Harvey “if not the best, one of the best in the world – not just the NWSL – in the world.”12 comments on this story
Harvey certainly looked it early this week, as the Royals won two games. But that ended in a 1-0 loss to the Reign on Saturday. That was followed by the RSL-Montreal match at night.
Thirteen years after pro soccer arrived in Utah, it’s safe to say Salt Lake City is, if not a soccer hotbed, at least a soccer-friendly town.
“For a long time, soccer fans have been so insecure about where they rank in terms of the hierarchy of modern sports in the U.S.” Dunseth said. “How I equate it is like punk music and skateboarding. It is what it is, and it’s always going to have its own lane.”
A lane where the speed limit continues to rise.