Salt Lake City's winning recipe
as the fine people of Utah know it -- before Stockton and Malone.
Personally, I don't care what Dave Checketts and his crew decide on for a nickname. I'm just ecstatic to see someone as respected and successful in the sports industry obtain an MLS franchise, which Checketts and his Sports Capital Partners officially achieved on Wednesday, with the announcement that Salt Lake City will now be home to Major League Soccer's 12th franchise.
With only eight-and-a-half months to go until the franchise's first MLS game, there are bigger fish to fry than what the team will be called (Utah Spelunkers, anyone?), what the colors will look like (let's give maroon and grey a try, people) and who the coach will be (paging Mr. Steve Sampson).
The question that will remain for Utah's entry in MLS is the same one that existed for Chicago and Miami going into their inaugural seasons in 1998:
Can they compete right away?
Of course, Chicago and Miami proved that answer to be a resounding YES. The Fire went 20-12 to finish second in the West with the third best record in the league before storming through the playoffs to win MLS Cup that year. Though Miami finished below .500 at 15-17, there were four teams with worse records, and it was a side that no one looked forward to playing.
That was six years ago, though. Seven by the time next season starts. The league has changed, as has the talent pool. There isn't one dominant team that Utah will select players from come the expansion draft, in the way that Miami used its first three selections on D.C. United players.
There aren't as many holes in lineups around the league the way there were back in '98. So the acquisition of one or two special players won't mean as much as it did back then. Speaking of which, I don't care who Utah gets as a coach, there's no way he pulls a Bob Bradley and plucks a player like Peter Nowak from a top league in Europe to come and play in Salt Lake. It just won't happen.
And if you're thinking that the Utah franchise will be granted several key allocations from the league, forget it. Yes, it'll receive one allocation that takes precedence over the other teams involved - everyone except Chivas USA, that is, which is a whole different bag of Puma balls altogether, since that will be determined by chance - but the remaining two allocations will come without precedence over the rest of the teams in the league.
What about building through the SuperDraft? Well, yeah, that'll be key. But the key word there is build. Selecting young Project-40s will surely be the best option even though it may not pay dividends until a few seasons in.
That leaves the Expansion Draft, which will be held in November when the ninth MLS season is over.
How they select their players will determine how the side fares in Year One, not to mention the direction of the franchise. That's why Checketts and Co. need to start immediately searching for front-office personnel and a coaching staff that knows this league inside and out. Good players and, perhaps more importantly, good people are not an option, but a must for this side to make waves in its first year.
The question is whether enough talent is out there. Rather than answer such a question with a long explanation or by showing several examples, see for yourself by looking at a couple of sample rosters the Utah MLS franchise could look like come the winter after the 10-round Expansion Draft is held.
Keep in mind the rules:
SAMPLE LINEUP A: D.J. Countess, Steven Herdsman, Chris Gbandi, Mike Petke, Evan Whitfield, Tyrone Marshall, Carey Talley, Oscar Pareja, Eric Quill, Zizi Roberts, Jeff Cunningham
SAMPLE LINEUP B: Matt Reis, Milton Reyes, David Stokes, Kelly Gray, Ezra Hendrickson, Ramiro Corrales, Daryl Powell, Mark Lisi, Sasha Victorine, Sergio Galvan Rey, Joe-Max Moore
SAMPLE LINEUP C: Nick Rimando, Rusty Pierce, Ryan Suarez, Tenywa Bonseu, Craig Ziadie, Diego Gutierrez, Santino Quaranta, Brian Kamler, Chris Brown, David Testo, Jamil Walker
Keep in mind, these lineups are without draft picks or allocations added in. Maybe Eddie Lewis will be available. Maybe even Kasey Keller. Who knows, perhaps Tony Sanneh.
Either way, you could take any one of the above starting units and win matches in MLS. Of course, you'd probably tie a lot, as well, since that's what seems to happen these days no matter what teams take the field. You wouldn't be embarrassed, though, would you?
The point of all this is to show that the clock is now ticking in Salt Lake. Success can be had in '05, but only with the right selections from the bottom up. Do someone a favor by naming him (or her) general manager, because of past loyalties or since it is a friend of a friend, then forget it. You might as well be the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
Get aggressive and hire a head coach who has his own ideas, a twinkle in his eye and a master plan -- something Chicago did by bringing in Bradley -- and you never know what might happen. Call in a tired MLS retread just because he "wouldn't mind living in Utah" or has somewhat of a name in the soccer community, and you'll always be fighting for your playoff lives.
The key for this franchise has to be to think big. Not as much in terms of attendance and gaining acceptance in the area -- that'll surely come if the Utah "soccer people" quotient keeps growing and enjoys MLS as it does U.S. women's national team friendly matches -- but as far as a full-fledged professional organization that tries to push the envelope as much as Jorge Vergara surely will with Chivas USA.
Even if they're called the Honey Bees.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.