Carlos Salcedo - Mexico - Holding off defender
REUTERS

Stejskal: Carlos Salcedo a window into what could've been for RSL, MLS

In February 2014, back when he was a 20-year-old squad player for Real Salt Lake, Carlos Salcedo stepped into an elevator in Tucson, Ariz., looked me dead in the eye and, somewhere between the lobby and fourth floor, told me that he would play for Mexico at the 2018 World Cup.

I nearly laughed.

At the time, Salcedo was entering his second season as an RSL Homegrown. I was heading into my second full year as a member of the club’s communications staff. He had a productive rookie season in 2013, appearing in 13 regular season games for a team that pushed for the Supporters’ Shield and advanced to the US Open Cup and MLS Cup finals. Everyone at RSL knew he was talented, but no one – not a soul – thought he’d reach those sorts of heights. I filed his claim away as the cocksure ramblings of a young athlete, a throwaway comment not all that out of the ordinary in the extraordinarily self-assured world of pro sports. I think I may have rolled my eyes.

Four years later, Salcedo is making me look like a damn fool.

Never the most highly-regarded young player on the team during his time at RSL, Salcedo has spent the last week turning heads on the biggest stage in sports. Now 24, he's played every minute for Mexico at the World Cup, lining up at right back in El Tri’s upset win over defending champion Germany before shifting to the middle for their victory against South Korea on Sunday. He’s been a major part of Juan Carlos Osorio’s impressive squad in Russia, emerging with Chucky Lozano, Jesus Gallardo and Edson Alvarez as the leaders of a new generation of young Mexican stars ahead of their Group F finale against Sweden on Wednesday.  

Salcedo, who spent time in the Chivas and Tigres academies before joining the RSL youth setup late in 2011, is having one of the best World Cups of any player with MLS connections, perhaps trailing only LAFC star and Mexico teammate Carlos Vela in that category. His success is a feather in the cap of RSL and MLS, a powerful statement of the type of player that Salt Lake and other teams around the league can help develop. But every tackle he makes in Russia, every shot he blocks, every win he’s a part of, all the praise he receives – all of it comes with a sad sense of what might have been.

You may already know the broad outlines of his story: After being frustrated by a lack of playing time in his second season with RSL, Salcedo took to Twitter in November 2014 to ask the team not to pick up his contract option. Citing personal differences with then-GM Garth Lagerwey, Salcedo, who was then represented by his father, made it clear he had no interest in returning to the club in 2015.

Behind the scenes, RSL began a discussion about how to proceed. Though first-year head coach Jeff Cassar had given Salcedo four fewer starts and played him nearly 400 fewer minutes than he’d logged in 2013, the club decided midway through the 2014 season that he’d enter 2015 as a starting center back.

The choice colored their entire offseason. It shaped their protected list for that winter’s expansion draft and influenced their decision to ship veteran center back Nat Borchers to Portland that December. When Salcedo hit send on his tweet, he threw a wrench into all those plans. It didn’t help that the club’s technical staff was a bit unsettled. Lagerwey was in the final weeks of his contract with RSL. It wasn’t yet known that he’d leave the club to join the Sounders that winter, but all the principles knew his departure was possible. They’d begun preparing for the eventuality by bringing current GM Craig Waibel from Cassar’s staff into the front office, formally hiring him as technical director on Dec. 16, one day after news broke of Lagerwey’s impending move to Seattle.

Lagerwey, Waibel, Cassar and team president Bill Manning, who moved to Toronto FC in the fall of 2015, were all in on the first discussions about what to do with Salcedo. According to sources, there was some initial debate. Keeping Salcedo on the squad was considered, with serious thought given to trying to repair the relationship between the front office and Salcedo and Salcedo and the locker room. In the end, concerns about how it would look to bring back a young player after he had so publicly disrespected the organization won out. They decided to sell.

Salcedo turning heads at the World Cup in Russia. | Reuters

Unfortunately for RSL, Salcedo’s tweet and he and his father’s deep connections with Liga MX clubs gave the club little leverage in negotiations. Still, they thought they’d worked out a solid deal. Waibel told me in 2016 that RSL had an agreement in place to sell Salcedo to an unnamed Liga MX club for a $1 million fee with a 25 percent sell-on clause.

For a player with just 25 career first-team appearances, that would have been a solid piece of business, but Waibel said it fell through when Salcedo and his father backed away in the final stages. After the deal was scrapped, Salcedo made it clear to RSL that he would only go to one team: Chivas.

Having already moved on from Salcedo, Salt Lake agreed to try to send him to Guadalajara. At this point, Salcedo held all the cards. Unwilling to bring him back and not wanting to play a game of chicken with their once-prized academy product, RSL sold Salcedo to Chivas for a bargain price of $450,000 with a one-time sell-on fee of $200,000. RSL collected the sell-on fee when Chivas loaned Salcedo to Italian club Fiorentina in 2016. They didn’t get a cut of his loan from Chivas to Frankfurt last summer and won’t see a dime of the multi-million transfer fee the Bundesliga club sent to Guadalajara when they acquired Salcedo permanently and signed him to a four-year deal in May.

It’s one thing to lose a talented player that goes onto big things. If a club gets a decent amount of production from him and nets a solid transfer fee, that’s great. It’s something MLS teams should shoot for. But to lose a player like Salcedo for a pittance after not giving him much run? That stings, regardless of the circumstances.

They can take some solace in the fact that they’ve patched things up with Salcedo, who hired American agent Lyle Yorks several years ago and is no longer represented by his father. He returned to Salt Lake City last summer after he suffered a shoulder injury in the FIFA Confederations Cup, spending time with old friends and making an unannounced visiting Rio Tinto Stadium, where, according to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Chris Kamrani, he and Waibel embraced and caught up. He has ties to the club beyond the first-team, too. His godfather, former USMNT assistant Martin Vazquez, the man who first brought him to RSL’s academy after he washed out of Tigres in 2011, remains in charge of the club’s youth setup. Depending on how far Mexico advance in Russia, he may be back again in a couple of weeks for a July 10 friendly between Frankfurt and RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium.

If he is in Salt Lake, RSL should celebrate him. They should be proud of his growth. But there’s a haunting element to how his time in Utah ended. Waibel told me back in 2016 that RSL will never structure another deal like Salcedo’s. They’ll look for a sell-on percentage in any and all future transfers. They’ve got scars from the sale. It might not have been a direct reaction to Salcedo, but they’ve played their youngsters more since he left. Homegrowns Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon, Danny Acosta and Bofo Saucedo all get plenty of run. They’ve grown.

The rest of MLS should, too. There’s a place in this league for talented young players, particularly those that come up through their team’s academy. The kids need to earn their playing time, but they need a little patience, too. If RSL had given Salcedo a little more leash and if Salcedo had been a little less rash back in 2014, they just may have been able to ride that elevator to the top together.