I am a Major League Soccer (MLS) success story. When the powers that be of professional soccer in the United States made a decision in the aftermath of a wildly successful World Cup in 1994 to try once again to establish a professional league domestically, they most certainly were hoping to reel in the casual American soccer fans who dabbled in the beautiful game at the Cup. I am the type of soccer fan they wanted and counted on finding to build the game in America. To be perfectly honest, I barely remember watching any of the World Cup in 1994. I was in high school at the time and had a million other “more important” things going on that kept me from watching the world’s stars as they battled for glory on American soil. It wasn’t until Real Salt Lake joined the league in 2004 and began play in 2005 that I discovered what I had been missing.
Major League Soccer opened play in 1996 with ten clubs. For the first nine seasons of its existence, I didn’t watch a single second of a single match. To go further, I had no idea the league even existed…I had never even heard of MLS. The early years were played in relative anonymity with little television coverage. Matches were held in massive NFL stadiums that dwarfed the tiny, often embarrassingly small crowds, despite the passion of those that did attend. The reason for this? It was, well…soccer. Yawn. Right? Wrong. But that was my mentality at the time about the sport. I had siblings that played soccer and loved it, but I was a diehard Cougar, Jazz and Red Sox fan, and those teams consumed my passions as a sports fan.
Fast forward to 2004, Mr. Dave Checketts, Commissioner Don Garber and Real Salt Lake. I was listening to the radio when it was announced that, seemingly out of the blue, Utah was adding a professional soccer club as its second professional franchise alongside the Jazz. I was excited to hear this news. Not because it was MLS, but because I was just happy to get another professional team in Utah. It made my home state more legit and I was stoked. I called my brother who is a huge soccer fan and told him the news. He was stunned.
Brother: Are you serious? You have to be lying. MLS teams don’t just pop up out of nowhere. I haven’t heard a word about this until now.
Me: Yep, I’m serious. Pretty cool huh?
Brother: Holy crap! This is HUGE! Do you realize how massive this is??
Me: Ummm. Nope. But it’s awesome to have another pro team in Utah!
And so it began. Dave Checketts, God bless his soul, flat out made it happen. He wanted to bring a new franchise to his home state and establish something that would encompass the passions and emotions of soccer fans in Utah for generations to come. He wanted to introduce soccer to non-soccer fans in the state and draw them in while showing the league and the nation that not only is soccer thriving in the United States, but it could even grow in the smallest market in the league. League Commissioner Don Garber recently acknowledged the importance of adding RSL for the 2005 MLS season. At the time, the league was in a somewhat precarious position because most of its current clubs were owned by just a few owners. Those owners were invested in soccer in America and owned more than one of the current clubs in the league. This was problematic on multiple levels. The bottom line? MLS needed new blood in the form of new franchises and more importantly, new owners. Clubs in Tampa Bay and Miami had closed up shop in recent years, unable to remain solvent. In a desperate way, the league needed to grow through an expanded ownership base. Dave Checketts was the man to step forward and take a massive personal gamble by investing in the league and the future of soccer both locally and nationally. Commissioner Garber honestly had to be pinching himself when Checketts threw his hat into the ring. Not only was the league adding a much needed piece to a limited portfolio, but Checketts was a national name…former President of the Utah Jazz and Madison Square Garden. For MLS, he was a Utah-grown big apple from the Big Apple, providing the perfect piece in what would develop into a groundswell of expansion critical for any league and MLS in particular.
A few months later, with little time to put together a club for its inaugural season, Checketts announced the name of the club would be Real Salt Lake, after the Spanish La Liga giant Real Madrid. Checketts had indicated he wanted to make the club uniquely American as part of MLS while still embracing the global influence of the game. Mission accomplished…you can’t go much bigger than Real Madrid when naming your club. John Ellinger was hired to lead the club because of his experience and connections to USA soccer at the youth level and goal scoring machine Jason Kreis was added to the roster as the clubs first player. The 2005 schedule was released and RSL learned their first match would be in NY/NJ against the MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) followed by their first home match at Rice-Eccles Stadium against their natural geographic rivals the Colorado Rapids (forever known as the cRapids). Being caught up in the hype of the new club, I decided to purchase tickets for my first ever professional soccer match. I had no idea what to expect, did not know soccer culture, was hoping for a large crowd but in my ignorance, would not have been shocked to see a small crowd show up.
After a scoreless 0-0 draw in near hurricane like conditions against the MetroStars, MLS earned its first ever league point as the first ever “Real Week” kicked off leading up to First Kick in Salt Lake City. To my surprise, 25,000 crazed, painted up fans showed up on a sunny April afternoon for the first home match in club history. As a side note, it took every ounce of everything in me to walk into RES for a game while wearing red. I honestly stood outside the stadium for ten minutes before I found the juevos to walk in…It just felt wrong. But I digress. To say I was stunned by the passion of soccer fans as I was introduced to the beautiful game would be a massive understatement. Chants, songs, painted faces, RSL flags in abundance…I fell in love before the clubs even took the pitch for warm ups. We got there in plenty of time to experience Carnival Real outside the stadium and were greeted by The Loyalists, one of the clubs founding Supporter Groups, pounding drums and leading chants. I figured they would stop pounding the drums once the match started. Noooooope they pounded it the entire match and when RSL scored to take its first lead, I thought the stadium was going to fall down from the intensity of fans celebrating. It was completely insane. For 90 minutes I was inundated with soccer culture and I loved every single second of it. Despite a 0-0 score going into the 80th minute, I was having the time of my life. I didn’t know understand the nuances of the game worth a crap, didn’t know the rules beyond the basics and was generally ignorant beyond just the raw passion of a fan. Around the 82nd minute of the match, RSL defender Brian Dunseth scored the first goal in club history on a diving header setting Mardi Gras inside the stadium. He ran over to the corner flag, lifted it high in triumph and slammed it home, giving RSL its first ever lead while simultaneously creating that epic moment fans will talk about forever…in my case, nine years later. As the final whistle blew, the players and fans celebrated the first 3 points in its history and I became a fan. I left the stadium that afternoon and drove home listening to the post game show with goose bumps on my arms and passion in my heart. Two days later, I ordered season tickets and I have never looked back.
So here we are in 2013, 48 hours after it was announced that Dave Checketts was selling the 51% majority ownership of the club to real estate mogul Dell Loy Hansen, who owned the other 49%, marking the end of Mr. Checketts role in shaping the future of the club. As a diehard fan of RSL, I would like to use this forum to say “Thank You, Mr. Checketts”.
Thank you for bringing Major League Soccer to the State of Utah and providing an opportunity for fans like me to discover the beauty in the beautiful game.
Thank you for fighting tooth and nail and putting yourself personally and financially on the line in 2007 during the fight with short sighted County officials in order to build a soccer specific stadium in Salt Lake. Real Salt Lake was all set to sell the club and move to St. Louis if partial funding for infrastructure was not provided, which would have made it impossible to build the stadium. Through private funding for the stadium itself and a last minute joint effort involving Governor Huntsman, funding came together for a stadium in Sandy, and we now have my favorite stadium in the league, Rio Tinto Stadium. If you have never been out for a match at Rio Tinto Stadium, it is an amazing experience. A packed stadium of 20,000 RSL crazies are now the norm and the only regret the club must have at this point has to be wishing they’d built a 25,000 seat stadium.
Thank you Mr. Checketts for pulling off an unheard of move by retiring a current player at the time, Jason Kreis, in order to make him the new head coach…a move that would have dramatic positive consequences in a very short amount of time. That genius move led to an up and down 2009 season and an unforgettable run through the MLS Cup Playoffs, capped by the first professional championship by a team in Utah as Real Salt Lake endured a penalty kick shootout against US International Landon Donovan, former England Captain David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy to be crowned league champions and winners of MLS Cup 2009 in Seattle. My proudest moment as a fan of the Claret & Cobalt
Thank you for bringing one of the world’s largest clubs, Real Madrid, to our State for a friendly match and the MLS All-Star game just a few years later. I could go on and on with expressions of gratitude for many other RSL experiences I have had thanks to Dave Checketts…it has meant so much to me as a fan.
For me personally, Real Salt Lake is a family. It is so much more than just another team I love. Being a season ticket holder, I feel that personal investment even more than ever. Dave Checketts had the vision and drive required to make a very difficult, borderline impossible opportunity a reality. I am a soccer fan to the core now and my passion as an RSL supporter will never die. I bring my two boys to every match with me and my daughters and wife come occasionally as well. They are also diehard fans who, like me, would likely never have become so without Real Salt Lake and Dave Checketts. I celebrate with the club during the high moments and suffer with them during the low. A day does not go by that I don’t read every piece of news I can find about the club. One of my proudest moments as a father came this summer when my 5 year old son, who has become a soccer junkie, opened his presents to find a new RSL kit and goalie gloves so he could be just like his hero, RSL GK Nick Rimando. Countless hours I have spent with him out in the yard firing shots at him as he mimics “Nick is my Homeboy.” Though the future for the club appears to remain bright with Hansen taking sole ownership, I will forever be thankful to Dave Checketts and the Checketts family for bringing Real Salt Lake to Utah.
For those of you who are RSLTID (Real Salt Lake ‘Til I Die) fans along with me, you know and understand the passion I am speaking of. For those who have not yet experienced Rio Tinto Stadium, aka “The Fortress” or “The RioT”, we invite you to come out and see what Dave built.
I once again offer my personal, profound gratitude to Dave Checketts and wish him all the best in future endeavors, as I know that RSL will forever live because of his efforts. Long live the Claret & Cobalt! I’m proudly RSLTID.