• Real Salt Lake at Sounders FC, 7:30 p.m., KONG 6/16
Seattle and Salt Lake City competed long before tonight’s inaugural meeting on a Major League Soccer pitch. In 2004, the cities were jousting for the right to join MLS.
Qwest Field was 2 years old, the promise of an MLS expansion franchise hung in the air, and USL Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer had assembled an ownership group.
However, MLS awarded its 12th franchise to Utah.
And while that stung at the time –visiting Portland Timbers’ fans taunted the locals with chants of “Salt Lake City” – Hanauer now says it’s the best thing that could have happened.
“I was working with some local business guys, and we thought we had a reasonably decent chance at getting a franchise,” Hanauer said this week. “But in retrospect, thankfully it didn’t happen, and the timing worked where I was able to partner with (Joe Roth and Paul Allen and Drew Carey) and it turned out for the better many times over.”
MLS’ decision gave Salt Lake a four-season head start. For the most part, they were rough seasons.
Real Salt Lake went 5-22-5 in its 2005 expansion season, ticked up to 10-13-9 in 2006, and regressed to 6-15-9 in 2007.
Big changes – and a breakthrough – came last season.
“This franchise really had a very difficult first three years of existence,” team president Bill Manning said this week. “Last season, there was a major organizational shake-up with a new coach, a new general manager and myself coming in. I think the expectations were, ‘Let’s just not be as bad as we’ve been in the past.’ ”
That goal was more than achieved as Real Salt Lake broke even with a 10-10-10 regular-season record, and then advanced to the Western Conference finals.
Other highlights were the franchise’s first opening-day victory, fewest goals allowed (39) and its first positive goal differential (plus-one).
With 12 of the 14 players who started postseason games back, Real Salt Lake opens its fifth season with ambitions of taking the next remaining steps: a Western Conference championship and a playoff run to the MLS Cup.
“The only way we can – I think – achieve a level of success is by raising the bar and setting it high, and anything short of playoffs, things like that, is just unacceptable,” Manning said. “Last year was the first step in that direction and we got hot at the right time: at the end of the year. This year, on the field I think we’re going to have a competitive team, and off the field we’ve changed a lot around. Our revenue streams have really increased, and I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Real Salt Lake sat out MLS’ opening week, while the Sounders got off to a 1-0 start with a 3-0 win over New York before a sellout crowd that has been the talk of the league.
Another sellout is assured for tonight. And those in attendance are expected to get their first look at Seattle midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, formerly of Arsenal and the Sweden national team, and defender Nate Sturgis, who came to Seattle after being made available in the expansion draft by Salt Lake.
Salt Lake features forward Javier Morales, who led the team with seven goals last season; midfielder Clint Mathis, a veteran of the U.S. national team and 10 MLS seasons; and a back line with Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers in front of goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
With Salt Lake’s encouraging end to last season, and Seattle’s encouraging start to this one, this could be a Western Division rivalry in the making.
“(The Sounders) haven’t made a wrong step along this expansion route,” Manning said. “Great fanfare, good front office, good coach; looks like they’ve put together a nice team. ... It looks like they’re going to be a great addition to MLS. We’re very excited to have them in the league.”
SOUNDERS FC GAMEDAY
REAL SALT LAKE (0-0-0) AT SEATTLE (1-0-0; 3 pts.)
When: 7:30 p.m., Qwest Field.
TV: KONG 6/16. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM, and in Spanish on 1210-AM.
Other meetings: Seattle makes its regular-season return visit to Salt Lake on Aug. 8. The sides also will meet April 28 at Tukwila in a play-in match for the U.S. Open Cup.
Coach Sigi Schmid’s scouting report: “You pretty much know (RSL) is going to be a 4-4-2. ... They got a great playmaker in (Javier) Morales, who can be very, very dangerous. They have good speed up front in (Yura) Movsisyan and (Robbie) Findley. They have a couple other midfielders who have an eye for a game in Clint Mathis and Will Johnson, people like that. (Kyle) Beckerman’s good as a defensive midfielder. (RSL has) made some good moves, but I think that trade for Beckerman was one of the best they’ve ever made. They’ve got some experience in the back with (Jamison) Olave and (Nat) Borchers. It’s definitely a quality team. Nick Rimando is one of my favorite people – it’s always fun playing against him in goal.”
Notes: It’s pronounced RAY-al. “Internationally, the Real brand signifies soccer at its highest level,” owner David Checketts said. ... On the Salt Lake roster is midfielder Raphael Cox, who was raised in Tacoma and played for the University of Washington. ... For the second time, Sounders FC has called up goalkeeper Ben Dragavon, using the “extreme hardship” rule to provide a second keeper while Chris Eylander remains unavailable because of a knee injury. ... Defender Jeff Parke is no longer with the Sounders. He worked out during the week, but the sides did not agree on a contract. Schmid said a trade of his MLS rights will be considered. ... Sounders forward Nate Jaqua has scored five goals in his past five games against RSL. ... The game is sold out. ... Fans again are invited to “March to the Match” starting 90 minutes before kickoff at Occidental Park near Pioneer Square. ... Fans also are encouraged to donate to the “Nothing but Net” anti-malaria campaign. Donations can be made at the stadium gates or at the team store.
Next: 1 p.m. April 4, at Toronto, BMO Field; FSN.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune