By Liviu Bird
SANDY, Utah — For 20 minutes before their players wander onto America First Field each day, Real Salt Lake’s coaches have the training pitch to themselves. They mark off a small court with cones around a rebound net, and they play.
Head coach Jason Kreis, assistant coaches Jeff Cassar, Miles Joseph and C.J. Brown and head scout Andy Williams take turns serving, and the next in line must hit the net and then the ground inside the cones in two touches or less.
The jokes fly. So does the trash talk.
Every time a ball lands outside the playing area, the last player to touch it gets a point. At the end of the game (usually when the players start spilling onto the field), the person with the most points loses. Today, it’s Williams. He will have to buy smoothies at Jamba Juice for the rest of the staff.
Players arrive just prior to the 10:30 a.m. start of training. The club opened America First Field, just five minutes south of its Rio Tinto Stadium home in this quiet suburb of Salt Lake City in March 2012. Both fields are laid to the exact same specifications: 120 by 75 yards of Kentucky bluegrass with a hint of rye, cut short to allow for quick ball movement.
Before last season, RSL trained at XanGo Field, at its jersey sponsor’s headquarters in Lehi, 20 minutes south of Sandy. Before that, training facilities bounced around often and included Rice-Eccles Stadium on the campus of University of Utah, where the team played its home games before building Rio Tinto, and various parks around the Salt Lake metropolitan area.
“We would train on fields that were just unplayable at times,” says Williams, who played for RSL from the club’s inception in 2005 and retired after the 2011 season to become head scout. “You’d get up in the morning and never know where practice was. It was pretty difficult.”
Kreis blows his whistle, and the players jog in to listen. Smiles fade. Talking subsides. A switch has flipped; it’s time to go to work. For the next hour, Kreis puts his team through a series of technical work, passing patterns and small-sided games.
Each drill lasts five to 10 minutes. Transitions are quick. Water bottles get passed around during rest periods in the dry, 90-degree heat, but the work rate does not drop. Kreis’ whistle rips through the air to command attention and allow him to make a coaching point.
At the end of each exercise, two short bursts followed by one long burst signals players to rotate. Equipment staff picks up one set of cones, the other already in place to minimize down time.
Kreis and his staff bark out praise and reprimands as necessary. Every exercise has winners and losers, so players are not shy about ripping into each other as well. By the time the team splits into two groups for one last competition, all-out sprints at the end of training, every player has countless touches in pressure situations.
“If I’m an aspiring head coach, I’d come out here, and I’d want to watch Jason Kreis’ training sessions,” veteran defender Nat Borchers says, sweat dripping off his brow. “I don’t think anybody else in this country runs a training session as well as he does.”
Television color commentator Brian Dunseth played for Real Salt Lake in 2005, when Kreis was the team’s captain.
“It’s like utopia,” he says of RSL’s training environment. “I never had this. Never had this. I think the young guys just don’t realize how good they have it until they start hearing horror stories about other teams around the league and other coaching staffs and the way things are run.”
When Kreis took over as head coach in 2007, his team was one of those horror stories. The first coach in RSL history, John Ellinger, led the team to a league-worst record of 15 wins, 37 losses and 16 ties over two seasons. Ellinger left after a 0-2-2 start in 2007, making Kreis the youngest head coach in league history.
As a player, Kreis left on a high note. He finished as the all-time MLS leading scorer, with 108 goals over 10 seasons with the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) and RSL. He was the first signing in franchise history for the Utah club and wore the captain’s armband, his vociferous intensity providing a brand of leadership that resonated with his teammates.
Kreis began shaking up the squad immediately. He traded striker Jeff Cunningham to Toronto FC, released Panamanian Luis Tejada and allowed Freddy Adu to leave for Portugal. He traded Mehdi Ballouchy to the Colorado Rapids for Kyle Beckerman. Chris Klein left for the Los Angeles Galaxy, in exchange for Robbie Findley. RSL also acquired Yura Movsisyan from the Kansas City Wizards and Fabián Espíndola and Javier Morales from Argentina. Finally, Nat Borchers and Jámison Olave joined the team just before the 2008 season started.
Overall, 20 of 23 roster spots changed from opening day of the previous season.
In addition, Kreis immediately assembled a coaching staff around him of former MLS players, beginning with Jeff Cassar as his right-hand man. Robin Fraser signed on soon after, and Garth Lagerwey joined as general manager in September 2007, replacing Steve Pastorino, who resigned when Kreis took over as coach.
“The second half of 2008, leading up into the playoffs, it really started to click that hey, this might really work,” Kreis, now 40, says. “The product that I saw on the field made me a true believer in what we were doing because it was pretty spectacular.”
Wholesale changes before the 2008 season led to a 10-10-10 record and a run to the Western Conference final. Rio Tinto Stadium opened in October, giving the team a soccer-specific facility to call home. The club grew up quickly, helped along by the mentality instilled by its new employees.
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Lagerwey brushes enough papers aside to create a laptop-sized gap on his desk. The door to his office, at the rear of Real Salt Lake’s corporate space in the bowels of Rio Tinto, remains open. As he thumbs his way around the desktop of his computer, other staff members walk in to ask questions about player appearances and miscellaneous line items.
Since joining the club on Sept. 19, 2007, Lagerwey oversees every facet of operations, including balancing the books and signing new players. He goes to training nearly every day, but for the past couple days, he traveled to check in on the Real Salt Lake Academy in Casa Grande, Ariz.
“We were able to take a situation that was pretty grim and turn it around pretty quickly, and I think that we’ve been pretty consistently good since then,” he says of the club’s turnaround from its first to its ninth season in MLS. “It’s really been awesome. I would freely admit I came out here for the job. It was my dream job. That’s what I had worked for my whole life. The Utah part worked out without knowing too much about it.”
Lagerwey, 40, says he spent exactly one day in Utah before moving. He used to do color commentary for D.C. United, and he stayed an extra day on one road trip to go four-wheeling with Kreis, an old college teammate at Duke University. After his college days, Lagerwey spent five years as a journeyman MLS goalkeeper for the Kansas City Wiz, Dallas Burn and Miami Fusion. Most recently, he practiced law for Latham and Watkins, one of the largest firms in the nation.
RSL is still the only MLS club whose technical staff — from general manager to assistant coaches Cassar, Miles Joseph and C.J. Brown (who took over when Robin Fraser left to coach Chivas USA in 2011) — all played in MLS. Their paths all intersected during their playing days, and all but Brown played for Dallas with Kreis at some point.
“I am flabbergasted that no other MLS team yet has identified that one of the core strengths we have is that everyone in the front office has played in the league for five years or more,” Lagerwey says. “I just think we have a high soccer IQ, and I think we have a lot of people that know what they’re doing.”
A panoramic poster of Rio Tinto Stadium during a game spreads the length of the wall behind Lagerwey’s desk. A framed photograph of him, his wife and his children on a sunny beach sits within his field of vision as he works, and he glances at it every now and then.
“Jason and I look at the world very differently. I tend to be more analytical. He’s a coach — he coaches from his gut and from what he sees and from what’s right in front of him,” Lagerwey says. “What we’ve found is that the two of us collectively, when we agree on something, chances are it’s been pretty thoroughly vetted, and it’s very likely to be a good decision.”
Because RSL staff members have known each other a long time, they interact with the brutal honesty bred from familiarity. Kreis cracks a rare smile when he thinks about his relationship with Lagerwey.
“We’re able to be incredibly honest with each other, and I think that in the end, that always leads to good decisions,” Kreis says. “But it definitely leads to some emotional and trying times as well. We get in some pretty big scraps.”
Recently, the two have not made many incorrect decisions, at least with regard to player signings. RSL is in the midst of another “remodeling” (anybody who uses the word “rebuilding” gets icy stares from Kreis and Lagerwey), having traded away three MLS All-Stars after the 2012 season.
With Will Johnson gone to the Portland Timbers and Olave and Espíndola now playing for the New York Red Bulls, the restructuring is well under way. However, their replacements were already close at hand.
Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil and Carlos Salcedo are among the younger players who have stepped up in their wake. The club discovered Velasquez out of nowhere, picking him in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft out of Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina. Meanwhile, Gil landed at RSL after signing a Generation adidas contract with Sporting Kansas City, and Salcedo, along with backup goalkeeper Lalo Fernandez, came out of the RSL Arizona Academy.
Gil and Velazquez now comprise consistent parts of a strangling diamond midfield, and newcomer forwards Joao Plata and Olmes García have five goals and six assists between them so far this season. It’s all part of the club’s plan to get younger and faster, as well as spend more money on attacking players rather than defenders.
The club’s all-encompassing goals include building a cohesive, stable squad that understands “The Team is the Star,” the collective mantra stamped on the locker room wall.
“We don’t sign big stars. We’ve had Designated Players for a while, but those guys aren’t making amounts of money that are disruptive to the locker room,” Lagerwey says. “I think that’s a key part of our success. The guys who we have who are making a lot of money are not only not disruptive, but they’re leaders. They’re people that believe that their individual performance is not the most important, it’s whether or not the team wins.”
According to the latest MLS Players Union salary numbers, Beckerman and Morales are guaranteed $300,000 in 2013, and Alvaro Saborío tops the RSL roster at $453,333.33. Including Designated Players, the club sits 13th in the 19-team league in terms of total player salaries.
Cassar and Williams, who are largely responsible for recruiting, emphasize finding players of character as much as looking for technical ability.
“That’s a big thing with Jason; he doesn’t want guys with attitudes breaking down the locker room environment,” Williams says. “It doesn’t matter if he’s an all-star player or World Cup veteran. Once he has that attitude, he won’t be playing for us.”
Even without bank-breaking players, the team won MLS Cup 2009 and then became the first MLS side to win its group and advance to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, the latest incarnation of North America’s regional club competition.
Everybody around RSL uses the word “family” to describe their workplace.
“We’ve done everything we can to make this club more than just a soccer club,” Kreis says. “We believe that it’s a family. That starts in the locker room, but it proceeds out into the management, it proceeds out to the people that work in our club, it proceeds out even further than that, to all our fans. We truly think that they’re all part of our family.”
That makes it difficult to pull the plug on a player’s career at RSL, Kreis says, because every decision hurts. But even after cultivating the kind of relationship the coaching staff has with its players, they sometimes have to kick players out of the family.
“It can be very hard,” he says. “Even going down into smaller details than that, making decisions about pulling a guy out of the lineup, or not playing somebody who wants to play, or pulling guys out of the 18[-man game day roster], it’s hard because we truly do care about them. We know. We’ve been through those decisions. We know how it feels on the other side. It makes everything a little bit more emotional, but I don’t think that’s bad in the end. I’m an emotional guy.”
After one particularly hot training session, Kreis takes a handful of ice from a cooler and smacks it down on Cassar’s neck, the water trickling down the back of his shirt. Everybody laughs.
The entire staff carpools to training from the stadium. Kreis and Cassar recently began a workout program together.
“[Kreis] always knows that he can count on me to give my honest opinion, and I think he appreciates that,” Cassar says. “There’s just a great respect, for us to the players and the players to us.”
Kreis adds: “As a player, I remember so many conversations asking coaches and management for honest answers and just never quite getting them. … That’s just the only way that everybody can know exactly where they stand all the time.”
Dunseth, who scored the first home goal in franchise history in RSL’s first-ever victory, a 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids at Rice-Eccles Stadium on April 16, 2005, retired in 2006 after a career with seven MLS clubs and Bodens BK in Sweden. He never played for Kreis, although he was one of his last teammates before Kreis took over as coach, and he is now a color commentator for NBC Sports Network and RSL’s local broadcasts.
Dunseth watches training sessions from the sidelines, joking with players and coaches at the end, in between shooting promos and interviews.
“I’ve been on teams where coaches would just big-time you left and right, just spout off about what the culture should be, and the guys in the locker room just weren’t the right guys to have that mentality,” he says. “Jason’s one of those very few coaches that, I think all of these guys, they would lay their souls down to stay here forever.”
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A horde of about a dozen reporters stand by as Beckerman gets out of the shower and pads across the room toward his locker. He dresses, waiting until the last second to remove the towel covering his dreadlocks and throw a button-up shirt over his shoulders. Everybody wants to know about his volley, the winning goal in Real Salt Lake’s 2-0 victory over the visiting Seattle Sounders.
Beckerman scored in the 41st minute, after Morales took a free kick that deflected off the Sounders’ wall and ricocheted to him. He smacked his shot off the underside of the crossbar, sparking a roar from the Rio Tinto crowd.
Earlier in the week, he sat on the bench for the United States national team in its 1-0 win over Honduras in Salt Lake. The next morning, he returned to training with his club teammates, hardly missing a beat. He buzzed around America First Field, energized by his stint with the national team.
Beckerman has captained Kreis’ team since his first full season at RSL, in 2008. The 31-year-old Crofton, Md., native provides a similar presence as his coach: a fiery character unafraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve and demand the best out of those around him.
“I think it’s just, we’re both trying to do the same thing for the club,” Beckerman says. “We both want to win. We both want the club to be successful. So we’re on the same page.”
Many people around the club point to Beckerman’s acquisition as a turning point in the club’s history. After Kreis’ hiring as head coach and Lagerwey’s as general manager, trading with the Colorado Rapids for Beckerman set the team on a new path.
“The biggest thing that we felt, the new guys that came in, is we needed a change in mentality,” Beckerman says. “The type of work ethic that was in the players just wasn’t right. So we changed that right away.”
Williams, who played for RSL from its first day in 2005 until his retirement, says he sees a major resemblance between the club’s coach and its captain.
“No matter if it’s in a practice or in a small game, [Kreis] doesn’t want to lose,” Williams says. “Same thing Kyle brings. Once he came here, he brought that on the field and in practices, and I think that’s the main turning point for us, was bringing Kyle here.”
Beckerman and the core of the team that joined him in 2008 carry the burden of leadership.
“It was guys like Chris Wingert, Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson in particular; those three guys that I saw every day were barking,” Dunseth says. “You never heard guys motherf— each other, but you heard guys hold each other accountable.”
Dunseth recalls a time in 2005 when, as a player, Kreis laid into World Cup veteran Clint Mathis for cutting a corner during a running drill. In his mind, if Mathis cut corners during training, Kreis could not trust him in adverse game situations.
“We [as a coaching staff] have a very firm understanding of what we’re asking. We know it’s not easy, and we don’t apologize for that,” Kreis says. “It helps us to know what needs to happen in the training sessions to keep everybody playing sharp and in the right place for the weekend.”
Within the squad, Beckerman plays chief justice. He keeps a handwritten list of fines on an envelope in his locker, although reprimands for general misbehavior, such as tardiness for a team meeting, are nowhere to be found. Instead, Beckerman scrawled words such as “selfie” and “hot tub” next to players’ names — generally, the younger guys.
Beckerman explains that the young players like to take photographs of themselves (“selfies”) a little too much, so he instituted a rule that everybody only gets one per week. (However, he has a zero-tolerance policy for shirtless photos.) Last year, Beckerman says, players were not allowed to speak Spanish on any black carpet in the locker room, which meant they would have to stand in the middle of the room, on the red floor.
Morales has carved out a niche as mentor for the team’s young Spanish-speaking players. He struggled to integrate in his early days at the club, but he learned English as quickly as possible, allowing him to feel more at home. Now, he serves as an example of cultural assimilation for others.
“I have been playing here for six years now, and I think my best soccer I play here in the USA. Jason has a lot of credit on that because he gave me the confidence,” Morales says. “Sometimes, he’s very strict — he wants to work hard. … For me, he’s one of the best coaches in my career.”
Borchers offers the most succinct summary of RSL’s ascent since he came to the club.
“Can I just give you two words? Jason Kreis,” he says. “That’s it.”
Players appreciate that Kreis is not far removed from his own playing days, allowing him to keep in mind their everyday thought processes.
“He wants to know what we think about specifics, in terms of what we’re eating, what we’re doing on the road, what we’re wearing during training,” Borchers says. “It’s fantastic to be able to have that kind of input as a player. The fact that he respects our opinion really makes this thing. It’s our baby, too.”
The coaching staff waits until Friday to make lineup selections for a Saturday game, Cassar says, allowing each player to compete for a spot every day.
“They know that if they give their all, they’re going to have a chance,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what kind of money you make [or] what kind of national team you play for; you’ve got to put it in every single day.”
Findley’s path back to RSL shows the kind of stability Kreis and the club offer. Using RSL’s 2009 MLS Cup and inclusion on the U.S.’s 2010 World Cup roster as a springboard, Findley moved to Nottingham Forest in England in December 2010. His European career never took off, as a result of injuries and a merry-go-round of managers during his stint.
“I had a whole bunch of different coaches coming in and out, so it’s kind of hard to get comfortable with the players around because they were always switching, too,” he says. “Just depending on your situation, those things take time, to build a bond with your teammates and the coaching staff and be successful. It was just up and down for me over there.”
In January 2013, RSL engineered his return by re-acquiring his rights from the Portland Timbers, who selected him in the 2011 MLS Expansion Draft. In 13 appearances in 2013 for RSL, Findley scored four goals so far. When he talks about his club, that familiar word appears again.
“It’s just a close-knit family here,” he says, “so it’s always good to be a part of something like that.”
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If the chemotherapy treatments weakened Marcia Williams, they only strengthened Real Salt Lake’s community ties. In 2008, Andy Williams’ wife underwent a bone marrow biopsy, only to discover the cancer. She began treatment immediately for her rare form of the disease, type 6 acute myeloid leukemia, and members of the Salt Lake community set up auctions and a bone marrow drive in support.
The bone marrow drive led to former RSL goalkeeper Chris Seitz donating his marrow in 2012, putting his career in jeopardy for a stranger. Every player on the team registered to become donors on that day in 2008 at Rio Tinto Stadium, as did the scores of community members who showed up.
“We didn’t expect it to be that much love and appreciation shown towards our family,” Andy Williams says. “Even people who didn’t follow soccer knew about Marcia’s situation and my situation.”
Her road to recovery was precarious. At one point, Andy left the team to be with her in a Seattle hospital, where she breathed only on a respirator. Eventually, Marcia Williams had a cord blood transplant, and her cancer went into remission in June 2009, in time to see RSL win MLS Cup.
Salt Lake City may be the smallest market in the league, but the club found a way to turn that into an advantage. Lagerwey doesn’t hide behind it or use it as a crutch — instead, it’s a point of pride.
“If you’re a city of this size — not a big place — I think you have to find ways to put yourself on the map, and I think that there are a lot of people here that are committed to seeing sports as a positive ambassador for the city and for the state,” he says. “I think, too, that the way we position the team is reflective of the community.”
That goes back to the team’s refusal to sign big stars, and it extends to the fans’ desire to see their small-town team take on the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls, who have signed single players whose salaries are twice RSL’s entire payroll, and win.
“They look at it, and we look at it, with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, like we’re going to do this; we’re going to prove everybody wrong,” Lagerwey says. “That’s a pretty collectively empowering feeling.”
RSL is at the forefront of the Salt Lake sports scene as the most successful franchise at the moment, with the National Basketball Association’s Utah Jazz failing to make the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. Kreis believes that potential always existed.
“Something just immediately stuck out to me that this was going to be a different experience than I had ever experienced in Dallas,” he says. “When you start to think about who that crowd consists of — LDS [Latter-Day Saints] people that go on missions to other countries around the world, I think that they pick up on some of that love for the game everywhere around the world.”
A local Mormon man conceptualized an MLS club in the Salt Lake Valley. Dave Checketts, former owner of the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues, paid the expansion fee to create RSL in 2004. He invested $72.5 million toward building Rio Tinto Stadium, including a $7.5 million pledge to build a soccer-centered athletic complex in North Salt Lake, and secured a $10 million public investment.
“Without Dave Checketts, there’s not a franchise here,” Lagerwey says. “Without Dave, neither Jason nor I is here. It was his vision for the team in his hometown, and he deserves a lot of credit for that as the founder.”
Soon after, Checketts felt the financial strain of the economic recession. He was always slightly removed from day-to-day operations, as he lived in Connecticut.
In 2009, Wasatch real-estate mogul Dell Loy Hansen bought 49 percent of Checketts’ shares. On Jan. 24, 2013, Hansen became the sole owner of the club. He took over a club that he described as being in a dire financial situation, although Checketts publically refuted the notion.
The new owner “has the ability to play with Monopoly money, if he chooses,” as Dunseth puts it. Hansen lives in Salt Lake, and he has committed to investing enough money to turn Salt Lake into a big player on the national soccer stage.
Building the field complex in North Salt Lake represents one step in that process, and Lagerwey says the facility could house a Utah branch of RSL’s academy in the next year. The need to develop homegrown talent pervades a place with one-sixth of Los Angeles’ population. The Utah academy would supplement RSL’s Arizona setup, not replace it.
Until recently, the whole process depended on a pending lawsuit, but the Utah Supreme Court ruled in favor of construction in December. The case revolved around whether the $15.3-million bond voters approved for the complex was issued lawfully.
Hansen’s financial stability should allow soccer to bloom in a growth market.
“Everyone is talking about soccer now,” Morales says. “A lot of kids play soccer. I have a 6-year-old, and he goes everywhere and plays soccer all the time. It’s almost like Argentina.”
While most of the 19-team league cannot claim an MLS Cup and Salt Lake can, the team senses that the best is yet to come.
“I think that we’re overachievers, for sure, given the fact of the salary cap constraints that we have and the fact that we are in a small market,” Borchers says. “At the same time, sometimes I’m disappointed by the fact that we haven’t won more trophies because we do have such a good team, and we have done such a good job with this group and of just bringing guys together and making them understand the system and playing for a common purpose.”
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From the mouth of Emigration Canyon, east of Salt Lake City, the Great Salt Lake spreads wide along the horizon. According to legend, the first words Brigham Young spoke when he laid eyes on the Salt Lake Valley, at the end of a 1,300-mile handcart journey from the Mormon colony at Nauvoo, Ill., were, “This is the right place.”
One of Young’s grandsons sculpted This Is The Place Monument between 1939 and 1947 as a tribute to those first Mormon pioneers who settled Salt Lake and the American West. It stands as a testament to a group of hard-working people in search of a better life than the one they left behind.
Rio Tinto Stadium has become a similar kind of monument for journeyman American soccer players, all settling in one place with a common goal. The majority of the Real Salt Lake core found Utah in a similar state, as hardworking professionals who were always on the edge of greatness, but who could never seem to find it at their old clubs.
Morales bounced around Argentina and Spain before 2007. Beckerman starred but never won silverware for the Colorado Rapids. Kreis won the Most Valuable Player award but never a league title in Dallas. Nick Rimando won one MLS Cup with D.C. United, as did Ned Grabavoy with the Galaxy.
But the events on the Wasatch Front, in the foothills of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Sandy, defines each of their careers in a way past successes and failures cannot. The original settlers of LDS Zion — the Promised Land that came to Brigham Young in a vision — would likely approve.
“This is the right place. Drive on.”