Real Salt Lake look to Iceland's example in expanding Utah footprint

NORTH LOGAN, Utah – Somewhere, not too far under the dirt in this windswept field, a few miles south of the Idaho border, is a Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen is just sure of it. Dig hard enough, dig long enough, and plant a few seeds along the way, and someone like Iceland’s homegrown hero is bound to turn up.

Hansen – a regional real estate mogul who grew up just down the road from the place where he was on Monday turning dirt for the first of a half-dozen regional training centers that will soon open through his non-profit RSL Youth Academy Foundation – has been the sole owner of the team since 2013 after joining as a minority owner in 2009 and is hoping to see his team bounce back after they struggled to a sixth-place finish and early playoff exit in 2016.

If RSL do experience a renewal over the next few years, there's a good chance it'll come from within, if Hansen's vision of finding and developing Homegrown players continues to bear fruit. And while he dreams of doing that in the way Iceland – population 332,000 – did on their long road to an improbable quarterfinal finish at Euro 2016, the centers he has pledged to build will be run as non-profits and broadly disconnected from the team’s official player development pipeline.

“This is a gift,” Hansen (pictured below, center during Monday's groundbreaking) said of the North Logan center, which will have a local management team, multiple outdoor fields and indoor training space – and offer dozens of free clinics each year after it opens next summer.

Real Salt Lake look to Iceland's example in expanding Utah footprint -

RSL Youth Academy Foundation president Jacob Haueter emphasized that he views the centers as auxiliary to an already brimming state club system.

“Everything we’re doing for the foundation is to supplement and support the clubs,” Haueter said.

After all, Haueter noted, a big part of the secret to Iceland’s success was less about developing players than it was about developing coaches. One in every 600 Icelanders is a certified coach, and two-thirds of those coaches have a UEFA B license, which can take several years of training to earn.

“They spent a lot of time and money and resources into developing coaches,” Haueter said. “That’s one of the first things we’re going to implement with the foundation.”

With an expanded legion of better-trained coaches and more training space – particularly indoor space in a state that spends a lot of money bragging about its snow – Hansen is hoping the stage will be set to identify about a dozen players per year to invite to RSL’s new training facility in Herriman, about two hours south of the North Logan center and just a few miles from the team’s stadium in Sandy.

In particular, Hansen said, he’s hoping to serve players who might otherwise have been missed by a youth competition program that largely caters to middle- and upper-income families.

“Soccer tends to reward passion,” he said, “not money.”

Of course, it also rewards strong development systems. RSL defender Justen Glad, a product of RSL’s youth academy in Arizona — and the team’s 2016 Defender of the Year — is evidence enough of that.

Finding another player like that? “That would be great,” Zarkos acknowledged.

But first things first, he said. Utah rests on 84,899 square miles of scorched deserts, red rock mountains, verdant valleys and otherworldly salt flats. And all that dirt won’t turn itself.