As the championship star above their crest and “team is the star” tradition attest, Real Salt Lake are accustomed to punching above their weight. Some would argue that it’s even a requirement for survival, considering that they sit in the smallest metropolitan region in MLS, competing against opponents with the benefits of far larger media markets and talent pools at their disposal.
When RSL pull this trick off, as they have for long stretches of their existence, it can inspire even more euphoria than most successes in this sport, like the odds have been cheated, Goliath outwitted by little David. When they stumble, though, it can hurt in a different way, too, a sense of overmatched doom deepening with every setback.
Unfortunately for the Claret-and-Cobalt, there’s been more of those than they’d like lately.
A side that once enjoyed seven straight years of postseason qualification have only made the MLS Cup Playoffs half the time since then. One of the first clubs to define what “Play Your Kids” means has watched counterparts crank up the league’s flow of outbound sales to the tune of millions of dollars. Off-the-field issues have buffeted an organization once synonymous with stability, prompting a “culture revitalization” built around a public profession of core values dubbed “The RSL Way.”
And uncertainty hangs in the air this winter, with RSL up for sale as the search for owner Dell Loy Hansen’s successor unfolds.
Into that unsettled matrix now steps the son of an MLS icon. Last week Kurt Schmid was named the new technical director, the quiet ascension of a quiet worker who labored in his father Sigi’s shadow for much of his first decade in the league, and now has the chance to stake out a legacy of his own at a club in need of inspiration.
“I mean, they're all challenges, right?” Schmid said in a media conference call when asked about the task at hand. “Every club I've been at has been a challenge, this is no different in terms of that.
“Being able to work in an environment that I think will be very conducive to bringing along young players from both the academy and even from outside the league is an important part of it.”
Schmid is tasked with ramping up Salt Lake’s scouting infrastructure, both domestically and abroad, and improving the internal pathway that runs from their groundbreaking academy to Real Monarchs, their USL Championship squad, and on to the first team. He’s not alone in this work; GM Elliot Fall and EVP of soccer operations Rob Zarkos are also on the case, and former players Tony Beltran and Luke Mulholland, the latter officially announced on Monday, have joined the staff with these areas in mind.
But Schmid figures to be a vital contributor in these areas, which are more important for RSL than most. And he dives into that task knowing full well that at any moment, new bosses could arrive with a whole different perspective.
“Anything could happen in the future,” said Schmid. “A new owner can come in and they can make those decisions that they decide are appropriate. But for me, I think what RSL has been known for and what they can continue to be known for and get back to to some extent, is this: young talent, and developing talent, and bringing through academy kids and recruiting the top kids and getting them into the residency program, developing them through Monarchs, and pushing them into the first team. So in my interview process that's the vision and the philosophy that we discussed and that we're bought in on.”
From 2009-17 Schmid was an easily overlooked but massively respected element in the Seattle Sounders’ long and ongoing run of savvy roster management, earning voluminous praise from Garth Lagerwey before he left to rejoin his dad in a similar role at the LA Galaxy, and most recently help launch Inter Miami’s soccer operations.
Over that time he’s seen technology and analytics transform his field, while MLS-reared talent has gained previously unimaginable levels of value on the world market.
“We used to have books of DVDs – like, notebooks full of DVDs,” Schmid noted with a laugh last week. “Now obviously we have video services that can stream every game in the world, we have data analysis companies that are left, right and center.
“The development pipeline has grown in my time in the league where, at the beginning, in 2009, the academy initiatives were kind of beginning, and now it's much more mature and developed and obviously it's very exciting with what American players have been able to do in Europe,” he added. “So coming into a club that's made that commitment is very important to me and I think that I've learned, at the different stops, lessons that can be applied to the unique situation in Salt Lake and help bring success to the club.”
Schmid has done his share of globetrotting in search of the next shrewd signing -- “his knowledge of players is encyclopedic,” Lagerwey once enthused -- and now he’ll oversee an entire staff towards that end, with that work still drastically complicated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Given RSL’s wider state of transition, it’s logical to expect that they’ll have to do more with less, at least in the short term, and the first team is currently in urgent need of scoring punch, an area where finding value is notoriously difficult.
One thing Kurt Schmid has going for them that others don’t? The lessons of his legendary father, a hall of famer and serial winner for most of his four-plus decades on the sidelines before his widely-mourned passing on Christmas Day 2018.
“Every day that we spent together was a blessing,” said Kurt when the topic of his dad was broached. “From a working standpoint, I learned a lot from him in terms of roster construction, team construction, balance on the field, balance off the field, locker-room dynamics, systems and formations, finding the right system to get the most out of your players rather than trying to wedge players into a system that you've decided is the best regardless.
“It's a long list, as you can tell,” he noted. “He was obviously an immense influence on my life professionally, and I was very grateful to be able to work with him.”
With their identity well-established for years, Salt Lake have already built some of the best infrastructure in the league; now Schmid and his colleagues must tune it for maximum output. On both a personal and institutional level, that task already looks like one of the most compelling storylines in MLS 2021.