They’re a time zone and two states apart, separated by more than a thousand miles of mountains, deserts and prairie and no overt reason for rivalry. But a common thread unites Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, one that makes their league clash at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; DAZN in Canada) one of the most compelling matchups of MLS Week 5.
“I have a lot of respect for RSL,” FCD head coach Luchi Gonzalez – a teammate of RSL boss Mike Petke at the Colorado Rapids during the playing days and a colleague of RSL assistant Freddy Juarez during coaching courses – told MLSsoccer.com this week. “It’s a really special moment to confront a club that is a rival in all aspects, not just the first team level but the academy, and [in player] development.”
These are the frontrunners in the Homegrown arms race, the kings – for now, at least – of the #PlayYourKids movement.
“Any time you invest your time and your energy and your resources into a model, and our model is similar to FC Dallas’ model,” noted RSL general manager Craig Waibel, “you have a friendly competition naturally built in there.
“It’s fun to watch Red Bull, and Philadelphia’s got some good young players that they’ve brought through, and Dallas – just between Dallas and us I think we’ve kind of outnumbered and outmatched everyone in terms of the productivity of our young players, and the courage we have to play them.”
Long before MLS became a bigger player on the global market, RSL and FCD were all-in on player development, constructing academy infrastructure that they believed would help them compete against richer, more glamorous counterparts in bigger population centers.
Before he become the head coach of Dallas’ senior team, Gonzalez made his name first as a coach in, and then the director of the North Texans’ sprawling youth setup. It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that Petke was similarly elevated to his current post from the same job title at Real Monarchs, the USL Championship team that links Salt Lake’s academy to the first team.
Gonzalez has been facing off against RSL teams at younger ages for years now, and along the way he’s seen the two clubs develop both a competition and a kinship.
“Back five, six, seven years ago, playing against RSL, it was always a team with a lot of commitment to having the ball, and attacking and transitioning and playing a collective game,” said Gonzalez this week.
“And we love those things as well. So we were competing in that way as an academy, and if it’s starting to show or transfer now with the senior teams, I guess that’s a product of the foundation that’s being built in the past years. That’s human nature – when you see someone else do something that’s very positive and impactful and you like it, you’re going to model it.”
In the process, both organizations have also embraced the Latino influence found in their talent pools, communities and the American Southwest at large. Staff at both RSL and FCD are quick to emphasize that it all fits into a holistic approach, where veteran professionals – think Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Ryan Hollingshead – and impact players from abroad like Albert Rusnak and Bryan Acosta are also important. Add it all up, and you have two perennial Western Conference contenders, able to punch above their weight in sheer financial terms even as roster spending rapidly ramps up across MLS.
For now, at least. The leadership in both Sandy, Utah and Frisco, Texas are keenly aware that teams like Atlanta United and LAFC are ready to borrow many of their youth development ideas while still splashing out on blue-chip, MLS-ready starters. Both can be counted among the cadre of MLS teams advocating for a more aggressive landscape league-wide, including the removal of the geographic territory maps that constrict who, where and how they can recruit potential HGPs.
“Even in just the four years I’ve sat in this chair, the [salary] cap changed three times, the investment has changed multiple times, we built an $80 million [training] facility,” said Waibel, a dependable defender for FCD’s Texas rivals the Houston Dynamo before he moved into management. “I think evolution is natural. The challenge will be to continue growing with the league.”
With ability types and levels fluctuating across birth years and what Waibel calls “generational talents” like Alphonso Davies still few and far between, cranking up a consistent stream of young prospects capable of being impact MLS contributors and/or sold abroad at a profit remains a challenge. And team circumstances matter, too: Waibel noted that RSL’s upset road win over LAFC in last year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs has “expedited the growth of our youth” moving into 2019.
“This is a very relevant model [but] I think it’s an unpredictable model in the sense that we’re not going to churn out a center back followed by a center back followed by a center back – positionally, the natural challenges that a model like this presents are, where is that next, most talented player playing for our academy?” he said.
“A big win like that in LA was huge for us in terms of our guys’ confidence and ability to believe in themselves and the project,” added Waibel. “There’s a couple different models and usually they fall into two categories: Buying a championship or building a championship. And we’re building brick by brick from the bottom up. That’s who we are.”