HEREDIA, Costa Rica – David Patey might be the last man expected to play savior in Costa Rican soccer, but the Utah-bred businessman, who brought his family here nearly a decade ago “to learn how to speak Spanish,” has made a point of doing the unexpected.
It explains how he, with the help of two brothers back home and a couple of local partners, saved the 22-time champions from extinction, emerged as a celebrity in his adopted land and now seeks to oust another American entity from the region's most important club soccer competition.
Patey, the managing partner of Club Sport Herediano, who are home Thursday night against the LA Galaxy in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals (8 pm ET, Fox Soccer), had no reason to step in when the storied club ran into financial hardship last year. He'd had no affinity for the sport and not much interest in gaining any, and now he's a something of a hero around these parts.
“I never knew the name of a player three months ago,” Patey, who took control of Herediano in November and expects the purchase agreement to be finalized by Friday, told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday evening. “I never knew the names of any of the coaches. I now know what a striker is. I know what a defensive back is. I'm translating from Spanish – I learned the words in Spanish. I do not know any of the soccer terms in English. I only know them in Spanish.”
Patey, 36, was in commercial real estate and owned a construction company and other businesses in Salt Lake City. He sold his assets in 2005-06 and brought his wife, Lori, and two oldest daughters (he now has five children, ages 3 to 11) to Costa Rica, where he's made money in real estate and works in the mortgage/brokerage industry.
The opportunity to own a soccer club arrived rather randomly. He was acquainted with the previous owner, Mario Sotela with RBC Radio Limitada, and started looking into joining forces with another American group looking into purchasing the rights to run the club, then put together his own group to make a franchise deal with the association that owns Herediano.
“This is a club that won the [Primera División] championship last May, and six months later, they stopped doing payroll,” Patey explained. “These players had dances and sold tickets door to door and did raffles and their wives sold food in the stadium to pay their salaries to keep playing.
"The first player I met was [Israel] Gómez, an Argentine kid, and he told a story about how he got kicked out of his house because they weren't paying his rent. Some fans moved him into a vacant house next to theirs, another fan brought a fridge, another fan brought a couch, another brought a table, brought some toys for the kids.
“You hear the stories, and you think, 'Holy mackerel, what a great fan base, to take it under their wing to financially support this club, giving someone time to look at it, come in and fix the financial challenges.'”
Patey was that someone, teaming with his older brothers Mark and Mike, who live in Provo, Utah, and had “never been big soccer fans,” and two Costa Rica-based investors to purchase a 30-year operating agreement that will automatically renew for another 30 years should the club win a set number of championships during their tenure.
The agreement required a cash influx and assumption of all debts – Patey prefers to keep the numbers private, but Costa Rican newspaper La Nación reported the club owed about $285,000 to the nation's treasury – and “everything's straightened out just fine,” he said.
“It was complicated in the circumstances it was in: months of unpaid salary, lawsuits, financial problems, unpaid light bills. We literally came in and started paying the lights, paying the salaries, paying the players. It's a 91-year-old club; it's never gone through the financial problems it's gone through in the last year. And we came in at a perfect time.”
Patey and his partners arrived just as Herediano were ousting Real Salt Lake in the CCL's group stage last fall – “It's not every day you own a club that goes in and beats your hometown soccer club," he said, "that's cool” – and as what they were accomplishing became apparent, his stature in Costa Rica rocketed.
“I've gone from an unknown to really, really well-known,” said Patey, who notes that his involvement in Costa Rican soccer is unknown in Utah, even among some of his family. “I walk into restaurants and they take pictures, applaud. The fact that some American businessman could come and remedy the situation created massive appreciation, not just among Heredia fans, but just in football in general in Costa Rica.”
His love for the game has quickly developed.
“I was what they call a 'pancista,' which means whichever club is winning, you root for them,” he said. “I'd been to probably 20 games in Costa Rica over the years, attended a lot of Saprissa games because a friend of mine would give me about 20 tickets to every game. I've followed more from a social side.
“I laugh that I never actually saw a goal in Saprissa – I was talking to the guy next to me. 'Oh, was there a goal?' I don't care and go back to talking to the guy.”
Now he and Lori are fanatics, attending every Herediano game home and away – they'll be in Los Angeles for next week's second leg against the Galaxy – and slowly absorbing the sport, its history, its lore.
“I'm kind of in a bubble of my little world here of soccer,” he said. “I know the names of the 12 teams and who the managers are, who the owners of the clubs are, who the good players are, who the not-so-good players are. Everything that I know is about Costa Rica soccer, but my eyes are opening more and more. Now I'm tuning in to watch other games. I tuned into watch the Manchester United-Real Madrid game [on Tuesday]. I find myself saying, 'Well, who's going to be my team in MLS who I like? This will be my team in Europe who I like.'
“It's been a total awakening to soccer, which is something I'm really sad I've missed all these years. It's really an amazing sport. Maybe it's like sushi. Let me tell you this: Sushi, I hated the first 10 times. Now it's my favorite food. Soccer was the same way. You've got to go to 10 games, just stick your way through it, next thing you know, it's going to be your favorite sport.”