Garth Lagerwey (left) faced an uphill battle when RSL tabbed him as GM a few years ago. (George Frey/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Dave Checketts made a boneheaded pick for Real Salt Lake's new General Manager six years ago. Just ask the General Manager himself.
"In 2007, even I thought Checketts was an idiot to hire me," said Royals boss Garth Lagerwey today. "To pluck an unknown lawyer from DC out of obscurity? I had a lot to learn about a lot of things."
Two years after Lagerwey’s hiring, a thousand miles and a time zone away, Peter Vermes stepped into shoes he had no desire to fill. His Kansas City team was suffering through a rough stretch of form -- one that came to a head with a 6-0 routing by Dallas. Coach Curt Onalfo was let go days later. The then-Technical Director Vermes stepped on to the sideline as an interim solution.
"At the time I had no interest in [coaching]," Vermes told SI.com. "We were still looking at other potential candidates, but it just got to the point to where it was like, I need to make this thing successful. I needed to do it, but I’ll tell you it was not an easy decision for me by any means."
So this is how foundations emerged for the two teams meeting in Saturday's MLS Cup final (4 p.m. ET, ESPN): through congruent clouds of self-deprecation and doubt.
The subsequent years, however, have seen Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City become two of the most consistent, well-rounded teams in Major League Soccer. Because of this, Saturday's match has all the ingredients to make it a classic, despite having several components that would traditionally spell disappointment.
For the first time in the league's history, its championship match will be contested by two teams in media markets outside the Nielsen top 10. And in this case, they're far outside. Real Salt Lake, ranked 33rd, serves the smallest market in the league. Kansas City sits just behind them at 31st. And while both squads feature a healthy mix of MLS veterans, domestic up-and-comers and key international players, neither boasts a household-name star on their rosters. Put simply, there isn't much that's "sexy" about this year's MLS Cup final.
Yet in showcasing Kansas City and Salt Lake on Saturday at a sure-to-be-raucous Sporting Park, the league appears to be one that rewards the smart clubs; organizations with an identity beyond the number of TVs their city owns or any name on their roster. Clubs that, in whatever sense, are built to re-load. If MLS Cup is truly an advertisement for the sport’s potential in the United States, then SKC-RSL is one that conveys stability and strength, not glitz and glam.
"What's interesting is that if you look at the really big teams -- L.A., New York, Seattle -- they can always make it into the playoffs just because," Lagerwey told SI.com. "What you're also seeing is that if you're well-run you can make it consistently as a small market too.
For Salt Lake, the makeover began as soon as the 2007 season ended, and Lagerwey attempted to chart his organization's future with his longtime friend, former teammate, and fellow new hire Jason Kreis as head coach. The team had compiled a dismal 21-50-23 record in their first three years. Player turnover was rampant. Something had to change.
"At first, our job was really easy, because our team was absolutely horrible, " Lagerwey said. "Jason and I both came in and said, 'Well, we can't break anything, so lets try everything.’"
The team made 2007 midseason acquisition Kyle Beckerman captain, where he remains today having blossomed into a national team fixture and one of the finest holding midfielders in MLS. They selected right back Tony Beltran in the first round of the 2008 draft. Then, they acquired Nat Borchers after his spell in Norway. All are surefire starters Saturday.
Matt Besler is part of a KC core that's been there since they were called the Wizards. (Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports)
But that's leaving out those who have left. Fellow 2008 acquisitions Jamison Olave and Will Johnson helped Salt Lake to their 2009 MLS Cup win and have since gone on to success with New York and Portland, respectively. Many other players have come and gone or emerged from the depths of the roster – far too many to recount effectively here. Nonetheless Real has made the playoffs every year since Lagerwey took over.
They’ve done so while keeping spending to a relative minimum, despite MLS providing the Designated Player slots for them to indulge on higher salaries. In their run of success, Real Salt Lake has only used their Designated Player spot twice: On forward Alvaro Saborio and midfielder Javier Morales. The difference between them and more high-profile DPs throughout the league? They had to earn it. Both worked their way into becoming key cogs who on sub-DP salaries before their strong performances were rewarded with richer contracts.
"When you're small, you have to be efficient," Lagerwey said. "We've built our identity -- the team is the star, hard-working, representative of the community. We've done the same stuff that Kansas City has. It's about matching the tone off the field with the on the field performance."
Nowhere does that type of synergy seem more apparent than in Kansas City. At the time Vermes took over in 2009, the club was still trading under the Kansas City Wizards moniker. Some in their area took the team seriously. Most didn't. Attendance trended toward the bottom of the league in the cozy confines of CommunityAmerica Ballpark, a minor league baseball stadium that served as a temporary venue for the team while ownership searched for the permanent solution that would become Sporting Park.
And to top it off, the team was bad.
"It was not fun to go to work every day," Vermes said, recalling that period in the team's history. "There were so many things that were going on the wrong way, and at the time it just didn't seem like the solutions were there."
"The one thing I did know was that we had very good young talent in the team."
The key, it seemed, was using that young talent. Current starters Matt Besler, Chance Myers and Graham Zusi were on the team in 2009 when Vermes took over. So were Roger Espinoza, Kei Kamara and Michael Harrington, each of whom would become key contributors over subsequent years before moving on to other clubs, where they have continued to be effective.
So, yes, the team had a core to work from. And that core proved to be adaptable. But the team’s shell -- the spirit of the club embodied by its colors, the voice of its fans, the look of its home -- was a work in progress. In 2010, the club rebranded as Sporting Kansas City. Sporting Park opened midseason. Everything changed.
"I think the rebrand for sure gives you a fresh start on the field, but with everything that you do there has to be a reason why you're doing it but there also has to be follow through," Vermes said. "It's not just one thing. The club isn't where it's at today because of the rebrand, and the club isn't where it's at today because of the team, and the club isn't where it's at today because of the stadium. It's all of those things working together."
A little help at the league level helps as well. While the 2007 introduction of Designated Players rightly received much attention, a plethora of smaller changes have made it easier for clubs like RSL and Kansas City to stay consistent in an inherently nebulous business. From this year’s introduction of retention funds to keep star players in the league, to the re-vamped waiver draft to make intra-league movement more transparent, to the playoff format awarding the MLS Cup final to the highest seed remaining at playoffs’ end – each change rewards developing from within and working together to create a consistent culture in all areas of the club.
“I think what we're seeing across the league now is that the teams that are in the playoffs consistently are for the most part well-run and well-coached,” Lagerwey said. And Vermes agrees.
“I think all of those incentives are helping not only to make teams more stable but also improve the product on the field,” he said.
The resulting product will be on display on a chilly field Saturday afternoon, with Kansas City facing a chance to win a championship at home against a team that is in many ways its mirror image: Once down, out and thrown to the curb, but resurrected by reluctant men who saw traces of good among the muck.