Disclaimer: They’re run by a couple of your author’s schoolmates, and they play in one of his favorite places in the world. But even those of us without such ties to RSL would have to concede the team has far exceeded expectations in its first decade, yes?
Trophies: 2009 MLS Cup
Fan personality: Enthusiastic. Salt Lake City was a surprising choice for an MLS expansion city, but the fans have more than repaid the league’s faith in the market. And just try to get this tune out of your head:
Yes, Rancid drummer Branden Steineckert put that together. A punk-rock drummer leading a march of families into “the RioT”? Sure. Utah is more diverse than you think, but the friendly reputation is absolutely deserved. Even the metal station in town is polite: “THERE’S A BLOOOOOD DONATION DRIVE IN SANDY ON SATURDAY … HOOOOOOPE YOU CAN HELP …..”
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Stadium situation: Gov. Jon Huntsman didn’t make much headway in the GOP primary, but he has an important place in RSL history, pushing his weight behind a deal to build Rio Tinto Stadium despite local opposition armed with misinformation campaigns about where the money would come from. It’s a beautiful place, and the atmosphere is great.
Even by expansion standards, Real Salt Lake had a rough start in 2005, ameliorated slightly by fellow expansion team Chivas USA doing even worse. The good news was that the crowds at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium, home of the 2002 Olympic ceremonies, were solid.
RSL improved a bit in Year 2, but a few games into the 2007 season, owner Dave Checketts had seen enough. He persuaded Jason Kreis to move from the field to the sideline. A bold move, but as Kreis says, fortune favors the bold. Kreis’s former Duke teammate, Garth Lagerwey, moved into the front office later that year, also without any direct experience for the job. They have plenty of experience now.
Checketts also had a massive win off the field, going through several stages of political brinksmanship before making the deal to build Rio Tinto Stadium a few miles south of downtown in Sandy, Utah. The stadium opened late in the 2008 season.
And 2008 brought more good luck with a favorable playoff draw in an upset-riddled bracket. But New York continued the upset trend by winning the semifinal in Rio Tinto. The first full year in Rio Tinto was a charmed year — the stadium hosted a World Cup qualifier, and the team came together late in the season to win the MLS title.
After that success, Kreis and Lagerwey kept the core together — imposing defender Jamison Olave, skillful playmaker Javier Morales, steady goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfield cornerstone Kyle Beckerman and a few others on the wings. But since reaching the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2011, losing a heartbreaker to Mexico’s Monterrey, RSL hasn’t managed another deep run in a tournament.
The core finally broke apart a little bit in 2013. Olave is gone, along with Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson. The team even has a new owner, with minority owner Dell Loy Hansen buying out Checketts. And yet the beat goes on, with Kreis, Lagerwey and company welcoming Robbie Findley back to the fold after a sojourn in Europe.