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Cover Story

The Real Deal Page all

From underdog to goliath and back again, the Real Salt Lake brotherhood is still fighting for the perfect game

By Stephen Dark
Posted // November 6,2013 -

At halftime of the last game of the 2013 Major League Soccer season, a furious Jason Kreis stormed into his team’s locker room. Perched, as always, on the right edge of the team’s bench, Real Salt Lake’s head coach had just endured a lackluster performance by Real against Chivas U.S.A., a team languishing at the bottom of the league.

Kreis wanted his team to be bold, to be risk takers, yet here they were, “another 45 minutes where we were just out there, expecting something to fall for us.” The usually taciturn Kreis, a former star player turned coach, gave his team “the hairdryer treatment,” a soccer euphemism for a coach shouting so close to players’ faces they can feel the heat of his breath on their skin.

His emotional explosion, Kreis says, reflected “my frustration with watching a group of men and knowing what they’re capable of at all moments and seeing them in a stretch where they won’t do that. For me it’s not about can or can’t; it’s about will or won’t. When I see that too often, to me it seems dishonest.”

Real’s captain, Kyle Beckerman, says the tirade had a clear message: “He just wanted us to step it up.” The second half, which also heralded the appearance of midfielder Javier Morales, saw just that, at least for the first 20 minutes. “I think Javier coming on was huge,” Beckerman says. “He was buzzing to get out there.” Real put away two goals in quick succession, the first a penalty by striker and lead goal scorer Alvaro Saborio, the second by the 21-year-old rookie Ecuadorian import Joao Plata.

While Chivas scored shortly after, Real ended the night, and the season, with a 2-1 victory.

For a league-record sixth consecutive time, Real entered the playoffs for the Major League Soccer cup, drawing archrival L.A. Galaxy in the first leg at the beginning of November. Thrust into the bright lights of the Western Conference semifinals, Real’s achievements during the 2013 season all but sank into the shadows.

What began as what Kreis calls “a rebuilding year”—although the rebuilding was not acknowledged publicly—evolved into one of unexpected success, bitter disappointment and uncertainty. The latter will only be resolved at the end of the year, when Kreis decides to stay or leave the team he’s led as coach since 2007.

The rebuilding began in late November 2012, when three high-profile members of “the core”—the first 11 who had started for Real the previous four years—were traded to make space under the league-imposed salary cap for an array of young forward talent, including Olmes Garcia, Joao Plata and Devon Sandoval, along with returning RSL veteran Robbie Findley. But changes on the field were obscured by a more dramatic change off the field, when, in January 2013, Real’s founder—New York-based sports-business entrepreneur Dave Checketts—sold Real to majority investor Dell Loy Hansen, a local developer and property owner.

Hansen, a self-confessed soccer novice, has brought a very different approach to ownership, more akin to Larry Miller’s passion than Checketts’ laid-back style. “With the players, I’m a father figure,” says the Cache Valley-born entrepreneur. “I know every one of them. After the match, I hug every player before he gets to the locker room. ‘I’m sweaty,’ they say. ‘I don’t care, I just want to feel it.’ ”

After all, he says, as “an owner, what do you want? Do you want to have a distant look at them? I’d rather intimately know them.”

In a March 2013 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune’s Aaron Falk, Hansen pulled back the curtain on Real’s problematic financial history and his efforts to address it. Since before taking full ownership, Hansen has used his extensive Utah business connections to help secure sponsorship deals. Most recently, Real secured a 10-year shirt-sponsorship contract with LifeVantage for close to $30 million in October 2013. In addition, Rio Tinto extended its naming contract with the stadium to 2020.

Add all that up, Hansen says, plus ticket sales, concerts, food and income from Hansen’s related businesses, and Real will be closing in on the top three soccer teams, in terms of revenue, in the country—L.A Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders. These are the teams, Real staff note, that outspend Real 5 to 1.

Along with financial savior, Hansen sees his role as “a civic duty. I didn’t buy this thinking I’d get a dividend.” Rather, he says, “It’s like being elected mayor without having to run for the job. I’m mayor of Real. But if you think ownership brings with it some dictatorial style, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Concerns about Hansen’s impact on the team’s management surfaced in September, when a national sports blogger revealed that Kreis had been talking to the owners of British super-club Manchester City about being coach of a new franchise for New York City, and a Tribune columnist claimed Hansen had all but driven Kreis into the arms of the prospective NYC team.

RealTeam_Hall.jpg
Ned Grabavoy, Kyle Beckerman, Joao Plata, Nat Borchers, Devon Sandoval and Javier Morales head out to the pitch

In these last weeks—or days, if victory over L.A. Galaxy proves elusive as City Weekly hits the streets—of Real’s year, Kreis is also struggling with a lesson brutally taught by the “deep, deep disappointment” of having D.C. United, a team Real viewed as inferior, snatch the Open Cup from Real on its home field in the late October 2013 final. Typically convincing as an underdog, Real too often can stumble in crucial games when it is the favorite at home, as the Open Cup debacle underscored.

Nevertheless, Kreis says after a rain-swept practice, that Real reached “second place in [the Western] Conference and third or fourth overall in the entire league, is truly remarkable. So whatever you want to say about the relationships, or the difficulties of having a new owner, it all worked in the end.”

Perhaps Real’s greatest achievement in 2013 belongs to General Manager Garth Lagerwey and Kreis and his coaching staff. They built a team over just a few months with a new depth in its attack and an emotional bond that surprises even the coach himself. He’s never known a team so close, he says, except for his own high school team, when “literally I felt I would do anything for anybody on that team.”

Among the host of new young players, Medellin, Colombia-born Sebastian Velasquez has proven to be one of the most exciting additions. He says that Real, like any family, “has its ups and downs,” but what helps them stick together is their respect for one another. “The first thing Jason tell us is to have respect for one another, to fight for the person next to you,” Velasquez says. “When you have 28 guys deep who all fight for each other, respect each other, a lot of great things happen.”

FIRE AND TEARS
In the waning weeks of the 2012 season, as Real failed to score in its last five games, one thing was apparent—the team needed a new attack.

“The pain of the end of the year was we lost the way to find the net,” Hansen says. “On paper, we had a very good set of forwards, but the connection wasn’t happening.” Ultimately, the decision came down to winning cups. “The reason we broke up the team was we didn’t win titles,” Lagerwey says.

Kreis operated on “zero sleep” in November 2012, sitting through emotionally trying meetings about whom they would trade. He knew that he would have to trade players who had given him blood, sweat and tears for years. And in fact, he says, he had wanted to do the trades the year before, in 2011, but couldn’t get internal support. “I feel now, with hindsight, you can only be together as a group for so long. The messages, the buy-in, begins to become a little stale.”

Yet, as the end of the 2012 season loomed, and with it the whittling down of “the core,” so grew Kreis’ angst over the choices he would have to make.

The first to go was Argentine forward Fabian Espindola, who had gone from streaks of goal-scoring to droughts, most notably the last games of the 2012 season. Kreis was concerned the fiery Argentine and new first-time father, who had bought a house in Utah, would be angry when told he had to leave. Espindola, Kreis recalls, was thankful for his time with the club. “I had cried a lot” over trading the players, Kreis says. “I think he saw that in my eyes.”

Will Johnson—now captain of one of Real’s biggest rivals, the Portland Timbers—and Jamison Olave, Hansen’s personal favorite player, were also traded, the latter joining Espindola with the New York Red Bulls.

RealKick.jpg
RSL practices in Sandy in late October in preparation for the playoffs

Manning walked Hansen through the reasons why they were trading Olave, “my best friend on the team,” Hansen says. He subsequently had Olave and his wife and child to stay during Christmas 2012 and says he still revisits with management the wisdom of trading Olave.

“Those decisions were really tough,” Lagerwey says. “Those guys were part of the foundation of who we were, our character; they’ve been through the wars with us. It was really tough to let those guys go.”

The veterans were also skeptical. “We were trading not just good players but their friends,” Lagerwey says. “It had been a very good locker room for a long period of time.”

Seeing the All-Stars go, veteran defender Chris Wingert says, was vexing. “You see these teams spending millions and millions on a single player and we can’t keep a few guys who are a huge part of the group because they make a couple of hundred thousand. It’s hugely frustrating.”

Kreis himself was deeply worried during the preseason. “We had so many new guys, players from other teams with only a year or two experience.” Many of them had a “really hard time understanding what we wanted to do,” the principal challenge being to adapt to the midfield diamond formation upon which Kreis had built his team.

Meanwhile, Kreis’ contract was ending in December 2013. His three prior contract extensions had all been decided before the end of January, and he expected that 2013 would be no different. “My feeling was that the contract needed to be handled between January 15 and March 1, and it wasn’t,” Kreis says.

The reason, Kreis says, was circumstance, namely Checketts’ replacement by Hansen as owner. “I think almost all of the fault, or the blame, only lies in the fact that there was a change in ownership,” Kreis says.

Hansen made an offer in March, but it was too late. Kreis insisted on no distractions from coaching. “Jason has one character trait,” Hansen says. “He’s singularly focused. Give him two items to focus on, and you can make him vibrate.”

ALPHA DOGS
Hansen, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, grew up in rural southern Utah. He served his LDS mission in Spain—he still speaks “perfect Spanish,” he says—and over the past few decades has built a residential and commercial property portfolio currently valued at $3.8 billion.

In 2009, Hansen acquired a minority interest in Real after listening to Real’s New York City-based founder and veteran sports-business entrepreneur Dave Checketts’ pitch to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to invest in the team. In the following years, Hansen witnessed bills stacking up as Real “suffered huge economic deficits getting the stadium built.” Subsequent revenues from the games and sponsorship failed to adequately service Real’s debt. “Three years, I wrote checks to the point that I bought 62 percent of the team, which at 60 percent gave me the right to manage,” Hansen says.

Real President Bill Manning jokingly compares Checketts and Hansen to two “alpha dogs” in a dog park—“eventually, they’re going to fight.” There were conflicts over “how best to invest, do we pay down our bills, do we invest in the team.” If Checketts was the visionary, then Hansen is the details man. “Dave would say, ‘I want you to score a goal’; he’s not going to tell you how to get there,” Manning says. “Dell Loy would tell you how to get there and score.” Both dedicated family men, both strong, controlling personalities, Manning says, “at some point, I knew one or the other would be sole owner.”

In December 2012, Hansen and Checketts submitted sealed bids to the MLS to buy each other out. In early January 2013, Hansen learned that Checketts’ bid for the team was higher than his and assumed he had been bought out. But, he says, MLS commissioner Don Garber told him Jan. 15 that the league preferred his offer because his independent financing would make Real a stronger franchise. Checketts told The Salt Lake Tribune that he decided after he had won the auction that he did not want to continue with the franchise and sold to Hansen.

RealTeam_field.jpg
Eyes on the prize: While off the field, Real players get together for bowling and barbecues, but during practice it’s all business.

Kreis’ relationship with the new owner had to be built from scratch. “He was a financial backer, but had no role on the soccer side at all,” Kreis says. Kreis had an emotional connection with Checketts; the “spiritual leader” of the team, as Manning calls him, had plucked Kreis from a player to be Real’s coach, just as he had plucked former professional soccer player Lagerwey from being an associate in a Washington, D.C., law firm to be general manager. Those were acts of faith that both men still cherish to this day.

“I’m the stepdad,” Hansen says about taking over after Checketts.

Checketts liked to rib Lagerwey good-naturedly in public, and Hansen has continued that tradition with Kreis. At gatherings of staff and players, Hansen routinely brings up a three-page, single-spaced list that Kreis gave Hansen after the new owner asked Kreis what he wanted. “I always call him out, I embarrass him,” Hansen says.

Kreis shakes his head and says ruefully, “It’s unbelievable.”

Part of the difficulty of having a new owner, he says, is “to not know how he feels about you. ... I knew 100 percent how Dave felt about me and was very comfortable in it, and so to have that change all of a sudden has been a trying process.”

NARROW MARGIN
In June, MLS announced a new franchise in New York City, financed by the owners of Manchester City. “That creates an interesting possibility,” Hansen says, in reference to Kreis. “When you’ve been playing soccer since you were 5 and always doing the right thing, the time to have a nice midlife crisis is right now.”

Kreis traveled to England in September to discuss the new franchise with its owners. Hansen sees New York as akin to an attractive young woman in a red Corvette pulling up in front of the coach “and the chance to go with her is because the wife gave you a pass that week.

“This is a respect issue between Jason and I,” Hansen continues. “After you’ve gone to the playoffs six times, you’ve won the MLS cup, you’re considered one of the top coaches in America, where’s the next mountain, what are you looking at?”

In his career as a player, Kreis says there were three or four times when he had to make big decisions. He cites as an example whether or not to stay in the United States with the evolving national league, or to take a chance with trials in Europe. “Every time I had this opportunity to take a little bit of a gamble, my wife and I decided to take the safe route and stay where we’re comfortable.”

When the new franchise owners approached him about coaching their prospective team, he faced a similar decision, this time as a coach. He could stay at Real with the contract Hansen offered him in August, which, Hansen says, would make Kreis the first- or second-highest-paid coach in the league.

Or, Kreis says, he could bet on “a team with a strong affiliation with a Premier League club, in one of the biggest cities in the world, in the one of the biggest markets in the league.”

In a September 2013 column in The Salt Lake Tribune, Gordon Monson, co-host of a radio show with Dave Checketts’ son Spencer, wrote that Hansen had endangered Real’s future by not securing a contract with Kreis early in the season. According to the column, rather than re- sign Kreis promptly, Hansen effectively wanted one of the top coaches in the MLS to prove his mettle. Monson wrote that if Kreis left, it would be Hansen’s fault.

Hansen dismisses the article as “missing by a country mile.”

Some Real veterans viewed Monson’s column with trepidation. “It’s definitely on the back of all our minds of the guys who are aware of it,” veteran defender Nat Borchers says. “In my opinion, losing Jason would be devastating for the squad. He’s really the linchpin of the success this club has had. He sleeps, eats and breathes Real Salt Lake. Everything we’ve done to this point is because of Jason. I think it would be really tough for this club to move forward without him.”

A Kreis departure would put Real’s subsequent decision-making under a microscope, Manning acknowledges. “Clearly, to lose Jason Kreis as head coach is a step backward. Jay is the leader. It would put a lot of pressure on the organization to make a good hire. The room for error is slim.”

A GOOD GROUP
While other professional-soccer locker rooms, Manning says, often see veterans turn their back on rookies, Real’s veterans took some of the younger players under their wings.

Morales not only helped Sebastian Velasquez feel at home when he joined in 2012, but mentored him also.

The Argentine “taught me positioning on the field, always play forward, something I needed to learn, since when I came in I always played simple balls to the back,” Velasquez says. “He’d chew me out in practice, telling me I have a lot of skill on the ball, to use that, to get the ball forward, to get assists [on goals]. Last year, I didn’t have any assists; this year, I had a couple and I got to get my first goal.”

Wingert says that right from the start, the new players brought a high level of energy to the game. “The young guys had great attitudes, they were really trying to buy in to what we were trying to accomplish as a group. Real was trying to bring in guys that were not only great players, but also a good group of men.”

Hansen is especially drawn to the Hispanic team members. He taught English to rookies Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata. The Latinos, he says, “are away from home, out of their element more.”

After Real beat the San Jose Earthquakes 2-0 in the March 2013 season-opener, rookie forward Sandoval says, “I saw we could be good; I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t win, be top of the league.” Indeed, “playing with all these guys, as good as they are, I had to raise my game, I had to become better.”

THE HARDEST LOSS
By September, Real’s investment in extending the depth of its attack had worked. “So far, so good,” Lagerwey says. “We’re the highest-scoring team in the league.” But that emphasis, Morales says, may have led to some imbalance, compared to previous years, with problems in defense and offensive play.

Along with reaching the MLS playoffs, Kreis had his eyes on the 2013 Open Cup. Real had “a very realistic chance” to win the trophy, he says. After having won only one cup in seven years as coach, Kreis says, “it is a little bit difficult for me to look at everything we’ve done and only have one thing to show for it, a MLS cup.”

Real marched onto the home pitch for the Open Cup final as clear favorites against D.C. United.

But after a D.C. ball bounced off Real defender Carlos Salcedo into the Real net seconds before the first-half whistle, Real never recovered, despite two rookies—Sebastian Velasquez with a blast to the left goal post and an ambitious bicycle shot by Devon Sandoval—going for broke.

As D.C. United hoisted the cup, Velasquez cried, his jersey pulled over his head. Kreis watched the D.C. United players dancing with joy on Real turf as if he were etching the scene on his retinas. He told the press corps later, “I stayed out there to watch the third team celebrate a trophy on our field.”

After the D.C. loss, the Real locker room, Lagerwey recalls, was dead silent. “People were staring at the ground, there was nothing to say. It wasn’t lack of effort or lack of heart, we just lost the same game four or fives times now.”

The Open Cup was one of a handful of crucial matches at the home stadium, Kreis says, where Real was expected to prevail, but “we haven’t figured out a way to make that last step.”

BROTHERLY LOVE
After losing 0-1 to the far wealthier L.A. Galaxy in Los Angeles on Nov. 3 in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals, Real is in the position the team has always responded to best: underdog. On Nov. 7, Real will host Galaxy for the second game of the semifinals in Rio Tinto Stadium.

“For me it’s all about opportunity, a great chance to knock somebody off, that has nothing to do with expectations or disappointments if we don’t win,” Kreis says.

Hansen sees the upcoming game as also being about Utah. In his role as “caretaker,” assuming the responsibility of “managing this for the community,” he knows “the community will have a ton of pride when the headline goes, ‘Salt Lake crushes L.A.’ ”

As to the other opportunity Kreis has to decide upon—New York—“there’s no deadline,” Kreis says. “We’ve agreed that as soon as the season is over, I’ll put all of my efforts into making that decision as soon as possible. If I’m not going to be head coach, they are going to have to have a Plan B in place.”

He has to weigh up several factors. One is the discomfort of going to a new franchise where he may not have the control over players he has at Real. “There’s a lot of uncertainty that comes in.”

Real_stadiumseats.jpg

Staying at Real would require commitments regarding “what this club is willing to do and going to become,” in terms of resources dedicated to both players and fans. “Most of the clubs are doing a lot more for their players than we are.”

Hansen says once the season is over, it will be time to sit down with Kreis again and say, “that red Corvette with the gal in it, does it really still look that good or can you stay at home in the cottage with us?”

Where they have found common ground in recent months is a communication comfort zone through texting. “I feel very, very comfortable with him,” Kreis says. “It’s got to a good point now where we understand each other.”

Lagerwey believes that 2013 has been Kreis’ finest year as coach. In the past, Real has signed many young players, he says; some worked out and some didn’t. But in 2013, Lagerwey says, “arguably for the first time, everybody succeeded. We have six players under the age of 23, and they all make it; I’ve got to tip my hat to the coaching staff.”

Kreis says what he’s most pleased about is the camaraderie that has emerged on the field and in the locker room between the veterans and the young players. He sees it in so many little moments, when a player who scores rushes to the bench to celebrate, and when players, upset to have been benched, nevertheless react with joy when the team scores.

“For me, it’s team chemistry, it’s a real togetherness,” he said after the Chivas game. “It’s these guys, I think they love each other.”

But even love isn’t enough to staunch the pain of lost chances at glory. Several weeks after the Open Cup, Morales says he still loses sleep over it. “I’m tired of getting to finals and not winning,” he says. Reaching the finals should mean the opportunity to “celebrate being champion.”

Lagerwey argues that will happen. “As long as we believe in ourselves collectively, believe in all the things that make us a really big team, we can find the courage internally and collectively to win the biggest games.”

But for Kreis, as much as its about winning and cups, as much as it’s about the fellowship of his restructured team, it’s finally about pursuing that one elusive gift. “I’m still after that perfect game.”

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