SANDY, Utah – Few trades during the past decade in Major League Soccer have re-shaped the landscape of the league and turned a rivalry completely on its ear.
The 2007 deal that sent Kyle Beckerman roughly 500 miles through the mountains from the Colorado Rapids to Real Salt Lake certainly fits in the category, but as is the case with most power-shifting moments like these, there’s a footnote to the biggest moment in the history of the Rocky Mountain Cup.
A month before the deal went down that summer Beckerman received a call from his agent that had nothing to do with Real Salt Lake. Then 25 years old and a rising talent in MLS and the US national team pool, Beckerman was actually on the lips of at least two other teams curious to see if the Rapids would make a deal to shed his contract.
“I was about to make the trip for Copa America [with the USMNT], and my agent calls me asking, ‘What would you think of getting traded?’” Beckerman told MLSsoccer.com. “The two teams were Columbus and LA. Obviously if I had a choice I’d go to LA, but honestly I didn’t think anything of it, and went down to Venezuela. I just thought I would be in Colorado forever.”
Of course the LA and Columbus deals were never meant to be, but neither was another summer in Colorado. By the time the ill-fated American team bowed out of the Copa America tournament and Beckerman returned to the States he was high on the short-list of players being quietly targeted by struggling Real Salt Lake, who had brought in Jason Kreis as head coach just two months before.
Colorado, meanwhile, had suffered a June swoon with five consecutive losses. The Rapids were talented – Beckerman, Pablo Mastroeni, Conor Casey, Herculez Gomez, Greg Vanney, Ugo Ihemelu and Jovan Kirovski were all regulars that summer – but decidedly top heavy when it came to their budget, and absolutely smashing up against the salary cap. They had 10 players on the roster making six figures – fourth in the league at the time – and while obviously talented, some thought Beckerman was something of a carbon copy of Mastroeni, and consequently expendable.
“We never really put ourselves in a position to go out and trade Kyle, but it was all about numbers,” said Fernando Clavijo, the Rapids head coach in 2007 and now the technical director with FC Dallas. “We had two of exactly the same kind of high-salary players, and we could not have them in the same position. It’s that simple.”
On July 16th a Rapids assistant pulled Beckerman aside and told him Clavijo wanted to see him for a moment in his office. One of his Rapids teammates asked Beckerman where he was headed, and he jokingly shot back, “Yeah boys, I’m about to get traded!”
Beckerman (right, in April 2007) expected a conversation about some ideas for turning the team’s fortunes around that year, but it turned out to be his last day in a Rapids jersey. He was shipped out for Mehdi Ballouchy, a talented but still fledgling central midfielder who was RSL’s top pick in the 2006 SuperDraft who, conveniently for the Rapids, cost roughly two thirds of what Beckerman did.
How many Rapids fans would pass the hat around to pay the difference to have that trade back now? Or maybe the Rapids should have parted ways with one of their higher-priced veterans, instead of dealing a talented player entering the prime of his career?
Said Clavijo, with a laugh: “The one thing I wish I could do different now is raise the salary cap, so I could keep both Kyle and Pablo.”
Hindsight can’t help anyone now, but Beckerman, for one, thinks the Rapids could have made it work on the field in Colorado. The club added three-time Best XI midfielder Christian Gomez in 2008 and boasted the likes of Casey and a young Omar Cummings, and would have had arguably the best defensive midfield in the league with Beckerman and Mastroeni.
“Pablo and I could have always played together,” he said. “And you look at all the talent that was coming through that organization … oh wow. There were numerous things we could have done. But whatever.
“I mean come on man,” he added with exasperation and a laugh. “I wasn’t even making that much money.”
Beckerman’s more than earned his paychecks as the undeniable face of RSL, and he’s proven to be a pesky thorn in the Rapids’ side. Colorado won the Rocky Mountain Cup in 2005 and 2006 but haven’t captured the trophy one time since dealing Beckerman away, and RSL have a chance to tighten their grip in the first of three regular season matches this season on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium (6 pm ET; MLS Live).
And he’s won over the hearts of the RSL fans he alienated as a Rapids stalwart shortly before he switched sides. Beckerman scored the second goal of a 2-0 Rapids win over RSL at Rice-Eccles Stadium two months before he was traded, and, after a postgame jawing session between opposing players had to be broken up, he told the media that the rivalry’s real vitriol came from RSL’s jealous fans.
"They run their mouths the whole game,” he said after fans had littered with the field with cups and trash. “If they don't want us to celebrate, win the game."
He looks back at those comments somewhat sheepishly now, but there are no regrets.
“I wanted to win them over with some effort and help them change the culture,” he said of his Salt Lake City arrival. “I knew if we could start winning here, they would get over the fact that I’d played for Colorado.”
Kreis said Friday that most of the credit for targeting Beckerman should go to John Ellinger, RSL’s first head coach and the man who drove the trade before stepping down in May 2007. The deal wasn’t as easy for Kreis, who struggled to reconcile parting ways with the promise of Ballouchy (right), who at the time was expected to become the catalyst for the club’s new-look offense.
But, as the Rapids well know, Ballouchy’s day in the sun hasn’t quite arrived yet. After the trade he spent two full seasons in Colorado before he was shipped to the New York Red Bulls, and he was traded again last season to the San Jose Earthquakes. He also batted issues with obtaining his visa while in Colorado, something Clavijo said he wished he’d investigated more during the trade process.
“At the time, honestly, I thought Mehdi had a pretty good shot with Colorado, while he was there,” Clavijo said. “At the end of the day it’s a situation where Salt Lake benefits, and sometimes that happens. But again, buyer beware.”
Beckerman’s relationship with Ballouchy since the trade is minimal but friendly, but his connection to Mastroeni is strong as ever. Mastroeni is battling a hamstring injury to make the lineup Saturday, but if he plays, Beckerman will be one of the first to embrace him. The two still smash into one another every time they play and jaw at each other, but old habits die hard. That will likely never change.
As for Clavijo, he throws up his hands and seems to accept his role as the man who helped set Beckerman on the path to a brighter future on the wrong side of the Rockies.
“He was upset, but in retrospect, this was probably the best thing to happen to Kyle,” he said with a laugh. “Funny how things work out sometimes, right? I don’t expect a thank you note from him, but I’m happy for him.”