HERRIMAN — Three years ago, RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen asked what general manager Craig Waibel now jokingly calls "a silly question."
"What would you do if you could do anything?"
The answer — scribbled on paper using crayons, Waibel said — might have seemed even sillier.
"I drew and said things that were ridiculous," RSL's GM admitted in a speech during the Zions Bank Real Academy's grand opening festivities Wednesday. "They're all in front of you today."
Hansen took Waibel's daydream and turned it into a grand vision that evolved into a massive and impressive world-class soccer complex in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley.
The $78 million campus features an enormous indoor training facility, which is the largest free-standing steel structure in North America; a charter school for the club's academy program and for STEM studies; boarding facilities for 100 students and/or players; a 5,000-seat stadium for the Real Monarchs; six outdoor soccer fields for training and recreational use; along with administration offices, a top-tier weight room, locker rooms, a playground, and ample concessions and dining areas.
Real Salt Lake locker room in new Zions Bank Real Training Academy in Herriman on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
"Thank you," Waibel told Hansen, seated on the dais with dignitaries involved in the project. "Because rarely do you actually get asked a question and you get to dream and it comes true."
MLS commissioner Don Garber made a special trip to tour the facilities on this special day for RSL.
"I wouldn't miss this for anything," Garber said. "I didn’t need an invite."
Though he's the top boss of the top soccer league in North American and has an NFL background, Garber used a baseball metaphor to describe his thoughts about what Hansen achieved with what's being called "The ZEBRA" (a RioT-like acronym for Zions Bank Real Academy).
"I think it's just spectacular," Garber said after touring the campus and training facility. "... Dell Loy just hit it out of the park here."
The Zions Bank Real Academy pic.twitter.com/lcA5OeQ8N9— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) February 28, 2018
As you can imagine, Garber has seen his fair share of soccer facilities, and he says these rank among the best in the world. He said "the scale" of the campus is what impressed him most. He relayed the reaction of officials from one of the top German teams in the elite Bundesliga who recently visited RSL's campus. They told Hansen and RSL officials it was on par or better than anything the German teams had.
"That's not something people expected years ago from MLS," Garber said, "and it's something we're going to see more and more of going forward."
The strong belief is that a campus like this will help connect the entire soccer community — or pyramid, as they like to call it in soccer — from the kids of all ages who train there to the academy program to the minor-league players (Monarchs) who practice and play there to the Utah Royals and RSL players who also put the state-of-the-art facilities to use.
Stadium at the new Zions Bank Real Training Academy in Herriman on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
"I believe we're in the midst of building the best pyramid of sports," RSL coach Mike Petke said.
In a video, one RSL player was quoted as saying, "Look at this. This could be in Alaska and I'd want to go play there."
Garber believes MLS teams — particularly ones in small markets — need to raise the bar with projects like this in order to become "a league of choice for the top players in the world" and not just as a league that's a fun place to start or end illustrious soccer careers. Hansen said MLS hopes to be a top-five league in the world within five years.
"It can’t just be about the MLS being a league on the rise, a great place to start a career or continue a career," Garber said. "It has to be about a place that’s as good as any other professional soccer league in the world in terms of its professionalism, its competition, its ability to develop you as a first-team player, and this (facility) tells a pretty good story."
The RSL organization is in the beginning stages of planning a smaller-scale training facility and academy for girls and women at Utah Valley University.
Hansen couldn't wipe the smile off of his face on this day his organization has been looking forward to and working toward for days.
"We've got something special here," he said.
Zions Bank Real Academy specifications
$78 million price tag
Located on 42 acres in Herriman
264,800 square feet of metal roofing (70-foot high pitch)
210,000 square feet of indoor fields
90,000 square feet of masonry walls and veneer
70,000 square feet in the STEM high school (grades 9-12)
70,000 square feet for training, administration offices
62,000 square feet of exterior siding
23,000 square feet of windows
10,000 square feet of concession areas
750-person spectator capacity indoors
525-foot-by-400-foot indoor facility
12 18-foot diameter air circulation fans
Six full-size outdoor soccer fields (five owned by RSL; one by Herriman)