USL Championship final: How RSL's Real Monarchs balance development, competition

Real Salt Lake aren't interested in turning their USL Championship side, Real Monarchs SLC, into a de facto U-23 team. 

Not that they don't hold player development in the utmost regard – they do – but it doesn't fit with their philosophy to exclusively roll out teenagers and set them up for loss after loss. They strive to find a balance between being competitive, moving players onto the first team and giving their Homegrowns signed to MLS deals another outlet for consistent minutes behind the first team. 

With seven players on the roster that are 22 or younger on a team that finished fourth in the Western Conference, then navigated the playoffs to arrive in the USL Championship final against Louisville City FC on Sunday, the Monarchs have found that balance. 

“We have a holistic view of development in our organization," RSL interim GM Elliot Fall told "We always want to develop everybody in every position to move up, and move on, in their careers. Hopefully, moving up and moving on is within the organization but if not, we can proudly say we developed somebody for bigger and better things."

The development doesn't stop just with players, though. The Monarchs serve as an incubator for coaches, like current interim first-team boss Freddy Juarez, as well as front-office staff, including Fall himself, plus medical and support staff.

One success story in 2019 on the playing side is forward Douglas Martinez. He joined the Monarchs in January and scored 17 goals this season, earning a first team deal with RSL. They've also had a number of Homegrown players get regular minutes with the team, including rookie Erik Holt.

The center back spent years in the RSL academy before playing collegiate soccer at UCLA, then signed his professional contract last offseason. The 23-year-old made five MLS starts and a further 20 with the Monarchs. 

“I was thinking about years before the Monarchs were around, guys in my position wouldn’t have the opportunity that I have," Holt said. "I feel lucky and am trying to take advantage of it. It means everything for my development. Games, especially the playoffs, are very valuable for a young player’s career. Any chance you have to win a trophy, I’m very grateful.”

While the club are focused on moving players to the first team, it's not the only goal. Staying competitive while selectively integrating players through the team is RSL's ethos, and somewhere between the two extremes, they find their balance. 

“It’s a unique balance with the Monarchs," Fall said. "[Success for the club is] absolutely about player development and progressing players and staff to the first team. That’s the core mission. But, a part of being successful in that mission, we believe, is creating a competitive environment where they can be successful and highly competitive in their league. We don’t see the value in throwing 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids to be overwhelmed week in and week out by veteran professionals.

"It’s important to get them those games, but it’s also important to put them in an environment where they know what it means to be successful," he continued. "Getting pummeled every week by guys 10 years their senior doesn’t necessarily do that. So, it’s a fine balance, but I would say success for the Monarchs is competing in the USL Championship and developing pros for the first team. It sounds like having your cake and eating it too, but I think we found some success doing that.”

A familiar face leads the team from the touchline. Jamison Olave, 2010 MLS Defender of the Year, twice named to MLS Best XI and anchor of RSL's 2009 MLS Cup-winning team, is the Monarchs' head coach. He spent 2008-12 and 2015-16 with RSL, making 159 MLS appearances with the club. 

“It’s funny, for him being so strong and aggressive when he played, he’s very humble and nice," Holt said, adding that Olave has spent a lot of time with him personally. "What I really like about the Monarchs, we spend a lot of time on our opponents in preparation. Every time we step on the field, I feel we’re mentally, physically and tactically ready to take on the opponent. I give him and the staff full credit for how they prepare us.”

Like Juarez before him, Salt Lake have high hopes for Olave's future.

"He’s very hardworking and he can be tough at times, so, I guess it’s like he was a center back," Fall said with a laugh. "He’s done a fantastic job. He came in as an assistant with the Monarchs and stepped into the head role seamlessly and done great job. I have no doubt he can continue to progress."

Olave will lead his side out on Sunday on the road in Louisville, hoping to lift a trophy, showing the league you can be a player development hub while winning.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for us, I’m super proud of the group," Holt said. "We’ve been through a lot. Just to have an opportunity to bring the first championship to the Monarchs means everything to me and I know it means everything to the guys.”