There is a thing that happens with giant names linked to MLS. They are always supposedly going to L.A., or New York, or sometimes D.C., Chicago, Orlando or Seattle. Occasionally it's Toronto or – if it's a Francophone – Montreal. And now Atlanta and Miami are getting into those rumors/reports as well.
They are not linked to Salt Lake City. Just as it is in the NBA, when none of the big-name, sexy free agents are picking their landing spots, Utah does not come up.
So if you're at Real Salt Lake and you're aiming to get those types of talents, the reality is obvious: You're going to have to build them from within. Whether that means going to Venezuela and hoping to mold Jefferson Savarino into a $10 million winger, or going down to Herriman and building a $10 million player of your own from the ground up, the path is clear and the identity is essential.
This is who RSL, at their best, have been. Twelve years ago Kyle Beckerman was not yet Kyle Beckerman, and Javier Morales was a journeyman playmaker just looking for a place that would take a chance on him. RSL have never been handed the best; they've had to take an active hand in making it.
This is who RSL are, and who they will have to be in the future. Appointing Freddy Juarez as head coach on Tuesday just confirmed as much.
“When you look at Freddy and the progression that he has taken, he has the natural heart to develop," owner Dell Loy Hansen said in the team's press release announcing the move. "He will constantly develop players and help them improve their game and he’s done that for 10 years.”
Juarez leaned into all of that in his introductory press conference.
Juarez: "The best model in the world is Ajax. Since 1981, they've always fielded a homegrown player in the lineup. We want to win — these guys are competitors. We're going to have to do it different ... invest in our talent." #RSL— Matt Montgomery (@TheCrossbarRSL) December 3, 2019
What Juarez has been through with the academy and Monarchs is building them into assembly lines of talent, and legitimate winners. He started at RSL as an academy coach 10 years ago, and two years after that led the likes of Justen Glad, Bofo Saucedo and Brooks Lennon to the USSDA U-16 championship. He was the inaugural head coach of USL affiliate Real Monarchs, and eventually worked his way up to becoming the top assistant for the first team.
So when Mike Petke and RSL parted ways this summer, the next step was obvious. And Juarez made the most of it, going 7-4-2 down the stretch to take third place in the West, then beating the Timbers in the playoffs.
“Having gone through everything with the academy and the Monarchs and now being able to lead the organization with the first team is awesome. It's something I never dreamed of, but it’s what I've been working for in continuing to get better as a coach and leader,” Juarez said in a press release put out by the team. “I want to thank Mr. Hansen for the opportunity and trust that he has placed in me and the fans for their support.”
Juarez, who was a lower division lifer in the US as a player, joins other MLS coaches like Philadelphia's Jim Curtin and FC Dallas's Luchi Gonzalez as former academy bosses who eventually worked their way up the ladder. As with those two coaches, expect RSL's approach in 2020 to skew young, fast and modern.
"It's a team that's controlling the tempo of the ball," Juarez said. "We're tactically moving the ball. Also finding the balance of getting in behind. And the trend is now, work our tail off to win the ball back as quick as we possibly can."
So it's the beginning of a new era for RSL. But the identity is the same, and the path forward is the same as it's always been.