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
Garth Lagerwey (left) faced an uphill battle when KC tabbed him as GM a few years ago. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Garth Lagerwey (left) faced an uphill battle when RSL tabbed him as GM a few years ago. (George Frey/Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Dave Checketts made a boneheaded pick for Real Salt Lake’s new General Manager six years ago. Just ask the General Manager himself.

“In 2007, even I thought Checketts was an idiot to hire me,” said Royals boss Garth Lagerwey today. “To pluck an unknown lawyer from DC out of obscurity? I had a lot to learn about a lot of things.”

Two years after Lagerwey’s hiring, a thousand miles and a time zone away, Peter Vermes stepped into shoes he had no desire to fill. His Kansas City team was suffering through a rough stretch of form — one that came to a head with a 6-0 routing by Dallas. Coach Curt Onalfo was let go days later. The then-Technical Director Vermes stepped on to the sideline as an interim solution.

“At the time I had no interest in [coaching],” Vermes told SI.com. “We were still looking at other potential candidates, but it just got to the point to where it was like, I need to make this thing successful. I needed to do it, but I’ll tell you it was not an easy decision for me by any means.”

So this is how foundations emerged for the two teams meeting in Saturday’s MLS Cup final (4 p.m. ET, ESPN): through congruent clouds of self-deprecation and doubt.

The subsequent years, however, have seen Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City become two of the most consistent, well-rounded teams in Major League Soccer. Because of this, Saturday’s match has all the ingredients to make it a classic, despite having several components that would traditionally spell disappointment.

For the first time in the league’s history, its championship match will be contested by two teams in media markets outside the Nielsen top 10. And in this case, they’re far outside. Real Salt Lake, ranked 33rd, serves the smallest market in the league. Kansas City sits just behind them at 31st. And while both squads feature a healthy mix of MLS veterans, domestic up-and-comers and key international players, neither boasts a household-name star on their rosters. Put simply, there isn’t much that’s “sexy” about this year’s MLS Cup final.

Yet in showcasing Kansas City and Salt Lake on Saturday at a sure-to-be-raucous Sporting Park, the league appears to be one that rewards the smart clubs; organizations with an identity beyond the number of TVs their city owns or any name on their roster. Clubs that, in whatever sense, are built to re-load. If MLS Cup is truly an advertisement for the sport’s potential in the United States, then SKC-RSL is one that conveys stability and strength, not glitz and glam.

“What’s interesting is that if you look at the really big teams — L.A., New York, Seattle — they can always make it into the playoffs just because,” Lagerwey told SI.com. “What you’re also seeing is that if you’re well-run you can make it consistently as a small market too.

For Salt Lake, the makeover began as soon as the 2007 season ended, and Lagerwey attempted to chart his organization’s future with his longtime friend, former teammate, and fellow new hire Jason Kreis as head coach. The team had compiled a dismal 21-50-23 record in their first three years. Player turnover was rampant. Something had to change.

“At first, our job was really easy, because our team was absolutely horrible, ” Lagerwey said. “Jason and I both came in and said, ‘Well, we can’t break anything, so lets try everything.’”

The team made 2007 midseason acquisition Kyle Beckerman captain, where he remains today having blossomed into a national team fixture and one of the finest holding midfielders in MLS. They selected right back Tony Beltran in the first round of the 2008 draft. Then, they acquired Nat Borchers after his spell in Norway. All are surefire starters Saturday.

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