Posted December 06, 2013

Small market RSL and KC have taken similar paths to MLS Cup final

Alexander Abnos, MLS, MLS Cup, MLS Playoffs, Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City
KC defender Matt Besler is part of the team's core which has been there since lean times in 2009. (Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports)

Matt Besler is part of a KC core that’s been there since they were called the Wizards. (Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports)

But that’s leaving out those who have left. Fellow 2008 acquisitions Jamison Olave and Will Johnson helped Salt Lake to their 2009 MLS Cup win and have since gone on to success with New York and Portland, respectively. Many other players have come and gone or emerged from the depths of the roster – far too many to recount effectively here. Nonetheless Real has made the playoffs every year since Lagerwey took over.

They’ve done so while keeping spending to a relative minimum, despite MLS providing the Designated Player slots for them to indulge on higher salaries. In their run of success, Real Salt Lake has only used their Designated Player spot twice: On forward Alvaro Saborio and midfielder Javier Morales. The difference between them and more high-profile DPs throughout the league? They had to earn it. Both worked their way into becoming key cogs who on sub-DP salaries before their strong performances were rewarded with richer contracts.

“When you’re small, you have to be efficient,” Lagerwey said. “We’ve built our identity — the team is the star, hard-working, representative of the community. We’ve done the same stuff that Kansas City has. It’s about matching the tone off the field with the on the field performance.”

Nowhere does that type of synergy seem more apparent than in Kansas City. At the time Vermes took over in 2009, the club was still trading under the Kansas City Wizards moniker. Some in their area took the team seriously. Most didn’t. Attendance trended toward the bottom of the league in the cozy confines of CommunityAmerica Ballpark, a minor league baseball stadium that served as a temporary venue for the team while ownership searched for the permanent solution that would become Sporting Park.

And to top it off, the team was bad.

“It was not fun to go to work every day,” Vermes said, recalling that period in the team’s history. “There were so many things that were going on the wrong way, and at the time it just didn’t seem like the solutions were there.”

“The one thing I did know was that we had very good young talent in the team.”

The key, it seemed, was using that young talent. Current starters Matt Besler, Chance Myers and Graham Zusi were on the team in 2009 when Vermes took over. So were Roger Espinoza, Kei Kamara and Michael Harrington, each of whom would become key contributors over subsequent years before moving on to other clubs, where they have continued to be effective.

So, yes, the team had a core to work from. And that core proved to be adaptable. But the team’s shell — the spirit of the club embodied by its colors, the voice of its fans, the look of its home — was a work in progress. In 2010, the club rebranded as Sporting Kansas City. Sporting Park opened midseason. Everything changed.

“I think the rebrand for sure gives you a fresh start on the field, but with everything that you do there has to be a reason why you’re doing it but there also has to be follow through,” Vermes said. “It’s not just one thing. The club isn’t where it’s at today because of the rebrand, and the club isn’t where it’s at today because of the team, and the club isn’t where it’s at today because of the stadium. It’s all of those things working together.”

A little help at the league level helps as well. While the 2007 introduction of Designated Players rightly received much attention, a plethora of smaller changes have made it easier for clubs like RSL and Kansas City to stay consistent in an inherently nebulous business. From this year’s introduction of retention funds to keep star players in the league, to the re-vamped waiver draft to make intra-league movement more transparent, to the playoff format awarding the MLS Cup final to the highest seed remaining at playoffs’ end – each change rewards developing from within and working together to create a consistent culture in all areas of the club.

“I think what we’re seeing across the league now is that the teams that are in the playoffs consistently are for the most part well-run and well-coached,” Lagerwey said. And Vermes agrees.

“I think all of those incentives are helping not only to make teams more stable but also improve the product on the field,” he said.

The resulting product will be on display on a chilly field Saturday afternoon, with Kansas City facing a chance to win a championship at home against a team that is in many ways its mirror image: Once down, out and thrown to the curb, but resurrected by reluctant men who saw traces of good among the muck.

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