Real Salt Lake's methods have earned widespread respect and have plenty pegging the club for success despite major personnel losses entering the 2013 season.There is a valuable commodity for which most teams strive during this age of armchair analysts and everyman critics: The benefit of the doubt.
Teams all across the world in all sports are second-guessed and skewered for personnel choices, trades and contract decisions on a daily basis. Real Salt Lake has managed to find the antidote for that.
RSL might not have the most decorated trophy case in the league -- the club has not won a major trophy since capturing its first, the 2009 MLS Cup -- but the club has respect, identity and a direction. In the salary-cap induced changing nature of MLS rosters, RSL has cultivated a formula for sustainable success, and with the second-best record in MLS over the last five seasons, RSL has become one of the league's top models for consistency.
"The organizations we try to compare ourselves to are the San Antonio Spurs and the New England Patriots," RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "Certainly within our league, a club like Houston that's been so consistently successful without signing [big Designated Player] names and stuff like that. They've had consistent success by believing in a formula."
Like the Patriots and the Spurs, there's a consensus that if a player goes to RSL, then he is either in for a career rejuvenation or is a missing piece to complete the puzzle, and if he can't make it there, then perhaps it's time to turn the page.
"It's not like we do this through tricks and secrets," Lagerwey said. "We look for hard-working guys who are very tactical, who will play for each other and believe that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. If you get people who believe in that and will fight for each other, over time you'll have positive results."
In MLS circles, the LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo and Seattle Sounders (coincidentally the three teams currently vying for CONCACAF Champions League glory) have similar reputations for being able to creatively manage the salary cap while having the uncanny ability to take players who weren't able to succeed elsewhere and turn them into key contributors. The common bond there is that the three coaches for those clubs -- Bruce Arena, Dom Kinnear and Sigi Schmid -- are widely considered to be the best in America.
RSL manager Jason Kreis is considerably less experienced than any of those three. A lethal striker in his playing days, the Duke University psychology major has quickly developed a reputation as a cerebral mastermind on the sidelines and has entered the pantheon of the most respected coaches in the league.
"There's a lot of players that want to play for Jason," Lagerwey said. "I think that his leadership is certainly one of accountability, but it's also one of empowerment."
Kreis' 4-4-2 diamond system has become a MLS tactical mainstay since he took the helm at what was a struggling franchise in 2007. Those days seem far removed now that RSL carries the league's longest active playoff streak at five seasons.
"I completely credit Jason Kreis for establishing that vision when he got there," former RSL core member and current D.C. United right back Robbie Russell said. "He took all the pieces that he liked and put it together. That is something that has his stamp on it.
"They're not adjusting their play to who they have, they're finding players that fit. He's created a system. This is how Salt Lake plays. Any players that come in, they are able to fill in for the person prior to that."
The team has fared well in the international market -- DP striker Alvaro Saborio and playmaker Javier Morales being two top examples -- but it has no problem taking in MLS retreads and finding a way to extract positive contributions. The MLS Cup-winning goalkeeper in the last two seasons, Josh Saunders, is now Nick Rimando's backup, and if Rimando has to miss time for international duty, the club has more than ample cover.
"We feel like character definitely matters," Lagerwey said. "We feel like work ethic matters. We feel like we want to meet every player and assess not just how they play tactically, but what their goals are. If they are individual goals, then they probably won't mesh as well in our system. I think that's why we've had some success with a lot of cast-offs from other teams."
The system extends to young unknowns as well. Unheralded Sebastian Velasquez was plucked from the junior college circuit in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, drawing a mass reaction of, "Who?" He has started on opening day the last two seasons.
"There's a system that we adapt to, and there's a system that we have to buy into," RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "Jason and his staff pay attention very closely to who can adapt and who can't adapt, and they've brought players in that can."
The club's philosophy is being put to the test this season. RSL is in a time of transition after parting ways with stalwarts Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola, and Will Johnson. The moves were necessary to navigate the salary cap and maintain a deep, competitive roster for the present and the future.
"You have not seen us sign big stars. When we traded away three All-Star players, we didn't go out to try and get three All-Star players to replace them," Lagerwey said. "We tried to build the depth of the squad, in particular with an eye on the long-term development of the squad. You saw us get younger, faster and we feel like we have more and more options.
"I think the big point for us this year after trading away three All-Stars, is to have patience and believe in it. We're going to stay the course, and over time we'll improve. We'll be better in June than in March, and we'll be better in October than in June."
RSL has retained leaders and core players like midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman, Rimando and currently ailing veterans Grabavoy and Nat Borchers. Up-and-coming talents like U.S. U-20 attacking midfielder Luis Gil and center back Chris Schuler are a big part of the new nucleus. The combination of the two and a trust in the RSL system has Lagerwey believing that taking a step back in the standings will not be a reality.
"We knew what we were giving up (in the trades)," Lagerwey said. "We got a lot back. We got a seven-figure swing in our cap by trading those three players, and we felt like it helped us build not just for this year but for the next three years.
"That's really the runway we wanted to lay out, where we could get our contract situation in a place where we could take this revised core let's call it, RSL 2.0, and hopefully push it and stay with it. For us, the way we play, continuity is very important. That's why we're patient now and it will evolve over time."
Some might question RSL's methods this time around and suggest that the club gave up too much to overcome in 2013. Given the club's track record, though, it's hard to not give Lagerwey, Kreis & Co. the benefit of the doubt.