Real Salt Lake just became Major League Soccer's first qualifier for the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals -- and that shouldn't surprise anyone who is paying attention.
The figures in charge at Real Salt Lake have constructed MLS' most stable platform in pursuit of organizational success. General manager Garth Lagerwey and coach Jason Kreis are game-planning for long-term success. This isn't MLS' version of the NFL's New England Patriots just yet, but it's the closest thing MLS has to it.
It's not that Real Salt Lake is crushing the league; that kind of dominance is next to impossible in the salary-capped, parity driven league arrangement. But RSL was the league champion two years ago and had the second-best point total last year. If we rank MLS clubs in some combination of where they have been and where they are going, RSL slots right into the top. Which MLS peer could challenge them?
Bruce Arena has built a good team in Los Angeles, but the roster is constructed to win now. Who knows after that?
Colorado owns the MLS Cup, but given that six teams had better records last year, and considering that 2010 represented the Rapids' first brush with big success, there is still some proving to do in Denver over a larger window. Runner-up FC Dallas has a roster stuffed with young talent, but young talent comes with its own set of questions. Red Bull New York seems on the rise, but that's all you can say for now.
The there's Real Salt Lake. The heart of the plan has been identifying key personnel and aggressively binding them to long-term deals, which isn't easy. Part and parcel is convincing key members to take a little less individually to form a stronger whole. It sounds magnanimous in concept, but professional sports and individual contracts are rarely about "taking less."
Still, RSL has done it. Midfielder Will Johnson and center back Nat Borchers had contracts that would have carried them through this season, but recently reworked deals bind them to RSL through 2014. Do-all striker Alvaro Saborio's recently negotiated agreement keeps him at Rio Tinto through 2014 as well. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando just added another year to his deal; he'll be around through 2013.
Kyle Beckerman's contract was renegotiated early, as well. A new agreement signed last year keeps the edgy midfielder around through 2013. Playmaker Javier Morales and imposing center back Jamison Olave are contracted through 2012.
So there you have the heart of the side, all buttoned up neatly through 2012, at least.
Since he left his job as a Washington, D.C.-based attorney in 2007, it's been Lagerwey's job to secure the personnel. The club's easygoing, accessible GM never likes to make things more complicated than they are. He studied similar organizations from other sports, mimicking the ways of smaller markets sides like the San Antonio Spurs of basketball or the Detroit Red Wings of hockey.
"You see patterns," Lagerwey said. "What all those teams do, in my opinion, is they identify a core. Now, that core may be much smaller than what fans think it is. ... Once you identify that core, you do what it takes to keep that core together, so you keep continuity."
He says that continuity is especially critical in MLS. That's because a relatively small $2.6 million salary cap makes it difficult (or nearly impossible) to cherry pick expensive talent the way big-market behemoths can in other sports. "So the team is the star, as we always say around here," Lagerwey said. "That means the group has to be better than the sum of its part."
Not that the parts are too shabby. Olave, Borchers and Morales were 2010 MLS Best 11 selections. Rimando and Beckerman dwell on the fringes of the U.S. national team pool, which is a nice enough neighborhood. Johnson is a Canadian international. Saborio was a well-deserved MLS Newcomer of the Year for 2010. Bundle them up and add some nice complementary parts -- like crafty veteran Andy Williams, whose massive performance steered RSL's aggregate goals win over Columbus in the Champions League quarterfinals -- and the side is clearly on the right path.
Even beyond personnel, RSL is a standard-bearer in organizational stability. Kreis, 38, may be the league's second youngest coach after D.C. United's Ben Olsen. But Kreis has been at his current post longer than 15 of the other 17 MLS head coaches.
You can't call Real Salt Lake the San Antonio Spurs of Major League Soccer -- not yet, anyway. The Spurs keep needing to expand their trophy case, with four NBA titles since 1998. RSL has nothing like that.
Still, Real Salt Lake is 35-21-21 in all competitive matches since 2008 (including MLS regular season and playoff contests, and matches in the U.S. Open Cup and Champions League.) The dividends of structural integrity pay most handsomely at home; RSL hasn't lost in suburban Sandy, Utah, in 34 matches dating to May of 2009. That's easily an MLS all-time best.
Throw in the fact that RSL plays an attractive style, with the ball on the ground and a useful understanding of spacing and, if we're being honest and impartial, it's hard not to be a little impressed.
There are inherent dangers with the RSL way, of course. Players bound to long-term contracts can become complacent. That's on Lagerwey to make the correct character assessments, to identify players who won't set the cruise control and nap until their next "contract year." Only time will tell if he's gotten it right.
And when players remain entrenched at one address over time, there's always a danger that management "falls in love" with them, meaning they don't recognize the creeping flaws of age. Lagerwey acknowledged that guarding against emotional decisions is challenging, but he is depending on the organizational checks and balances arranged by owner Dave Checketts. Further, Lagerwey hopes his training as an attorney helps him analyze the player market objectively.
Of course, some of it is on the players, too. They have a role in preventing things from going stale. Beckerman said that's not a problem given the disappointment of last year's first-round playoff upset by Dallas.
That will keep the edge around the training ground for 2011. Past that? Beckerman thinks the model works for the long term, too.
"It's something we all wanted," he said. "Everyone out here wants to be with an organization that keeps bringing back the core, so we can really go after things. This year there's so much out there for us to win."