SALT LAKE CITY — Talk is cheap, but building sports complexes isn’t. So naturally the people at Real Salt Lake weren’t holding back on their celebrating this week.
They’ve walked the financial walk, now they’re talking the talk.
RSL’s season begins Saturday at FC Dallas. Back in Herriman, Real cut the ribbon on its Disney-scale soccer complex. Clubs that play in foreign leagues are taking note.
In a certain way, the little team from Utah has the world’s attention. Utahns love all things international. They hosted the 2002 Winter Games to raves. Now they want to host them in 2030. World Cup winter sports events are a regular around here anyway. The Jazz have eight foreign players. And missionaries — oh, the humanity! Tens of thousands served in soccer-playing lands.
Build a wall?
Utah prefers to build a complex.
There actually is a wall at the new Zions Bank Training Center — a 21-foot retaining wall at 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium. But that’s it. Everybody is welcome. RSL/Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen’s plan was to construct a full-service soccer complex where the Royals and RSL could practice in winter months. But it serves far more than that. It’s home to its own high school, as well as the USL’s Real Monarchs.
A bright future ✨— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) March 1, 2018
Your look into the world-class Zions Bank Real Academy. pic.twitter.com/U0rfAgI7v4
Meanwhile, future RSL players can live and learn there day and night. Top European teams can make training visits.
Big ambitions, big expenses.
“When we started, we thought we could do it for a certain many dollars,” Hansen said. “That meant it really took twice as many dollars. So I had to keep selling things to make sure we could pay for this.”
Zions Bank Training Center staged its ribbon-cutting just three days before the start of Real’s season. MLS commissioner Don Garber was on hand to see what is being labeled “the largest free-span structure in North America.”
That includes Mark Eaton.
Utah has ambitions of being the nation’s “super center” of soccer. The new facility has seven regulation-size training fields, two of them under a very large roof. If Goodyear ever needs to park its blimp …
Last November, RSL missed the playoffs by a point. Had the team done better than 0-3-2 in its first five matches, the postseason would have been a breeze. Team officials say an indoor facility should facilitate quicker starts. Previously Real was forced to schedule times at BYU or Utah, if available.
“Weather in the preseason killed us last year,” said spokesman Trey Fitz-Gerald.
Whether RSL improves this year is conjecture, but this much is clear as the team awaits kickoff: Major League Soccer and its teams have high ambitions.
“We are trying very hard to become one of the top leagues in the world,” Garber said.
For its part, Real thinks it can be the best in MLS via the back door, i.e. its facilities. Hansen says an official from German league Bundesliga visited this winter. At first, the visitor seemed to expect little from the American team. But after the tour, according to Hansen, “he wanted to be my general manager.”
What RSL is attempting is to tip the scales. Utah doesn’t attract global stars from Europe and Latin America. But by having first-rate facilities at Rio Tinto and Herriman, and developing its own talent, the team believes it can produce high-level results.
“We’re not L.A., we’re not New York, we’re not Atlanta, are we?” Hansen said. “We’re Utah. That makes us special. We’re the Green Bay Packers of soccer … so why don’t we set a goal that we’ll be the very best training facility in the United States?”
Lambeau Field, eat your heart out.
“Salt Lake’s a small market, and small markets have to have things to offer top players — the (Albert) Rusnak’s of the world — and say, ‘You might not have the lights of New York or the beach in L.A., but you’re going to have something here that’s unprecedented in almost any other MLS market,’” Garber said.
Actually, what Real wants isn’t unprecedented. It already has one MLS Cup. If it doesn’t win another, it won’t be for lack of facilities.