“I knew you'd have to get tough or die / And it's the name that helped to make you strong."
Real Salt Lake. Real Salt Lake. As a boy-named-Sue of a name goes, that one must be right up there.
Teams have always borrowed from unlikely sources, especially during the happenstance of travel patterns that gave us the clubs and origin myths of the early professional game. The Juventus black and white stripes borrowed from Notts County, for example, and indeed, just as RSL did, the early '70s Leeds team borrowed from Real Madrid in switching to an all-white kit. But when the Real Salt Lake name was announced for the expansion team that started the 2005 season, it just seemed to hit the anti–sweet spot in its gauche/bathetic nod to Europe (right down to the pronunciation of the name) and the unfortunate sense of plasticity it suggested.
Yet I’m mentioning it now, because for many neutral followers of MLS, this is a side that has played beyond the jarring effect of their name so thoroughly as to render it virtually invisible. When I speak to a European friend now and talk about teams I admire in this league, it’s now actually a brief surprise to register their raised eyebrow at the mention of the name, before I wave them off and carry on talking about perennial challengers in the league, holding the core of a young team together like MLS model citizens, and consistently punching above their weight in domestic and continental competition. Head coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey built a team around the talents of a confident young player called Kyle Beckerman, while treating the restrictions of the MLS salary cap as a discipline rather than a straitjacket, pulling together a core of players who would go on to win an MLS Cup and come within a game of a Champions League title — all while playing an attractive, technical, possession game.
Kyle Beckerman is in a New York hotel lobby just before the season starts, talking about that side, and also the current breakup and reinvention as the MLS salary cap hits. Beckerman’s good company, with something of the star pupil about him — he solves each question as much as he answers them. Tellingly, one of the qualities Beckerman values in teammates is “sharpness.” It’s not that he’s not reflective, though — when we talk about the breakup of the team that’s been built round him, Beckerman is keen to stress continuity and look forward, but acknowledges the significance of what the first group did. “I’m really proud. I think we’ve built a foundation for this club to stand on for 50 years, and we can continue to build off it. We’ve built a brand, in about five years, of a team that’s constantly in the top half of the league. We play good soccer, or at least we try to — and we’re doing it on not big spending.”
Not big spending ... the Salt Lake team Beckerman arrived at were a very different-looking proposition from the side he plays in today, though his first impression of the project Jason Kreis was trying to build was favorable. “Players like Chris Wingert and I weren’t on big money and we were all hungry to get to a fresh place where things were going in the right direction. I was coming from Colorado, where the owner didn’t care about his team, and ultimately that trickles on down so maybe the people you put in charge, maybe they don’t know about soccer, so they’re listening to somebody who maybe played the sport but maybe he’s not the best ... So now that trickles on down, your coach, the food ... the little things ... so I think a lot of us got to Salt Lake and it was like, ‘Finally.’"
Kreis remembers the acquisition of Beckerman as a key to RSL's success. “I can’t say enough good things about Kyle Beckerman. He was one of the first trades that we made," he recalls. "Immediately, when he came in, I saw that he was a guy that we wanted to build the team around. The plan was to try to identify the four or five most important players in our setup and then add players around them. I think that we got there and sustained that for a couple of years, but unfortunately you can’t keep that group together for ever.”
The project grew incrementally into at first a modest success and then a model one. The team qualified for the playoffs, year after year, and had they not dropped a surprise Western Conference final game in 2008 (to the wild-card New York Red Bulls) they may have gone on to win more MLS Cups than the one they took home the following year (defeating L.A. Galaxy on penalties). Perhaps even more impressively, they went on a run to the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final — getting a 2-2 tie in Mexico in the first leg of the final against Monterrey before being squeezed out by a single goal at home. And they did it around that consistent group of players.
Last season was the one where the cracks started to show. The young core of the team, built round the likes of Beckerman and striker Alvaro Saborío, had matured into players who rightfully expected a market rate (or the MLS version of one, at least) for their consistent achievements. The turnover of successful sides is compressed in a league like MLS (certainly compared to the “natural” cycles of free-market footballing dynasties) and no sooner had the side matured than the seeds of their dismantling were sown.
Before the 2012 season started, Kreis and Lagerwey were vocal about their decision to keep the first 11 together, though the glass ceiling of the salary cap was already pressing hard on the team. But having come so close in 2011, Kreis felt the side he’d built could make one more successful run at the Champions League. “Last year in particular was a time where we made a very conscious decision to keep our 11 together. We knew that we weren’t going to be deep past that — we were going to be relying on players with literally almost zero professional experience to come in and play meaningful minutes and hope that they can contribute. That’s the choice we made to try and be successful and put our best foot forward in CONCACAF.”
The team had a strange campaign. On one level it was a very successful regular season, as the side racked up a record points total in the Western Conference, but the effort was clearly showing. The front pair, Saborío and Fabián Espíndola, would each have both hot and cold spells in front of goal. The team were getting wins, but many games felt like protracted midfield battles as the side ground through the gears.
When I put it to Beckerman that it was often like witnessing a side operating at their limits, he agreed. “Sometimes that frustrates me, because I see other teams like Seattle, the Galaxy, New York, they’re all, once that window opens, actively looking. And if you look at their salary and ours, it seems we’re pretty even on a salary-cap standpoint, so why aren’t we going out and getting that third forward? But we play by different rules — not different rules, but a different thinking in Salt Lake. We were about 13 deep, 14 deep max, and nothing there to get us out of a scoring drought if you’re in one.”
Late in the season, with RSL facing elimination from the Champions League against Herediano, the stories about the team being on the verge of being broken up reappeared. To the dismay of the players and coach, though, the narrative seemed to be driven from within the club itself, seemingly emphasizing the bellwether status of the game as a marketing ploy. When I remind Beckerman of this, he’s nodding vigorously before I finish framing the question about his reaction. He’s seated, but looks like he’s bouncing on his toes like a boxer in his corner:
“I was disgusted by it. I thought it was just strange that we would pick a negative story to put out there, when the way I look at it is, if we’re the small-market, not-big-money, don’t-go-after-DPs team, and that’s who we are, then you can’t go saying, 'If we don’t win the championship, it’s a failure.' That’s for the Lakers, or the Yankees, the type who can spend the money.”
Collecting himself, the club captain adds, “I expressed myself that I was upset about that and I think as we move forward we’ll all be on the same page. I think I was heard.”
When Salt Lake were eliminated by a 0-0 draw in the Herediano game, there was barely time to consider the implications, with the MLS playoffs already looming. Against Seattle, in the postseason, RSL failed to score a goal, and what had been a decision about protecting the starting 11 the year before got harder for Kreis. “No longer are you able to keep even the starting group together, but you can maybe keep eight guys together, and how are we going to build it from there? So another conscious decision is made about that.”
Three core players were traded: Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave, and Will Johnson. Why those three? Salary was an issue obviously, but Kreis notes that “it’s not going to be good enough to replace their salary in the salary cap — you have to replace the salary, plus add something very meaningful. In our case we were able to add a lot of allocation, because those three players were seen as so valuable on the market.” He also notes that “if we’d won something, or advanced in CONCACAF at the very least, then there may have been enough money to keep one or two, or maybe even all three of those players.”
For all the expectation of movement in the first team, the trades still came suddenly for the players involved. When I spoke to Espíndola last week, he was proud of his time with Salt Lake. “That was fantastic — a great five years. A great group. I have no complaints about that."
But when I ask about the manner of his departure, he still seems a little hurt: “I had no idea until the last meeting. They told me 'We’re not going to need you anymore,' and I said 'OK. Thank you so much for everything' and ... that’s it ... I mean, I wasn’t expecting that."
Espíndola became a father last year and had just bought a house in Utah. It was strange seeing him in another team’s uniform the following weekend. It was stranger still to see him and Olave combine for three goals for New York, against Will Johnson’s new team, Portland, last weekend. It felt uncanny to see those main three together, but on opposing teams, and then to watch the game between San Jose and RSL that immediately followed it and see their remaining teammates working on RSL 2.0 (or, strictly speaking, Jason Kreis's RSL 2.0). It went beyond the usual opening-day experience of seeing where the MLS trade carousel has scattered players.
Back at the hotel lobby, as Beckerman insistently lists the players who are coming back for the new season (“It’s a lot of familiar faces — Rimando, Beltran, Wingert, Schuler, Borchers, myself, Grabavoy, Gil, Findley, Saborío ...”), I’m still thinking about the now-departed trio and the ending of the first group’s collective journey. I start thinking of that Herediano game again, and it strikes me that there was a third way of looking at it that wasn’t about seeing a cynical Survivor-style elimination contest, or just the positive spin of how well the side had done to be there in contention again: considering the game as an end marker of collective distance traveled.
I think of an observer in the Liverpool locker room after their treble bid foundered in the FA Cup final in 1977 who said: “One day some side might do the treble. Maybe even a side from Liverpool. But not these men.” When the core of that RSL 1.0 team broke up, something of value was lost by a group of men who had built and shared a history, and in the brief history of MLS as a whole, a phenomenon like that matters. For real.
Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for The Guardian. He also writes for Howler.