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Unfinished Business

Nearly seven years ago, eventual RSL Founder Dave Checketts was deeply engaged in the process of investigating whether or not professional soccer – the MLS brand thereof – would thrive in the Salt Lake Valley.  A long-time sports and entertainment entrepreneur who had stabilized the NBA Utah Jazz’ presence in Utah and restored past glories to legendary venues such as Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, the Wasatch native found the potential of soccer in the Beehive State quite intriguing.

Checketts, while working at the highest levels of the NBA’s International division with Commissioner David Stern, had experienced first-hand what futbol/football/soccer meant to people in places such as Barcelona, London, Milan and Madrid. The game transcended the two-hour spectacle witnessed in-stadium or on television – it commandeered virtually every aspect of their lives, instilling itself in one’s blood, evoking passion rarely associated with other endeavors.

Checketts and his business partners envisioned the establishment of the world’s game in his childhood home. Major League Soccer, not even a decade old at the time, should be able to tap into the 2002 Olympic host’s increasingly cosmopolitan makeup and quickly establish that powerful and rare emotional connection that sports fans – soccer fans – have with their uniform, their colors, their TEAM.

What would that team look like? At the time, Dave couldn’t have envisioned a dreadlocked “Braveheart” patrolling the field, nor did anyone expect an athletic, non-prototypical goalkeeper guarding the posts behind the perfect combination of centerbacks, one cerebral and American, the other a Colombian-born linebacker type. Who knew the fan favorite would be the former Jamaican National Team captain whose journeyman MLS career – five teams in seven years – would thrive after putting roots down in Utah?

Family is a constant now in the organization, with Santi Morales and Jett Rimando emulating the actions of their beloved fathers in the locker room after games, everyone fighting for their brothers and sisters, united by a common cause: the betterment of the organization. Players are celebrated not only in the stands with post-game embraces by the fans, but throughout the community in restaurants, coffee shops and breakfast nooks. The head coach pacing the sidelines is none other than the organization’s former captain and first-ever player, Jason Kreis, the first man to notch 100 MLS goals and the one who abruptly traded in his studs – the ones that saw him retire as the League’s all-time leader in the only stat (besides wins) that matters – for sartorial splendor on the sidelines, molding the team – and changing the culture of the organization – with his interpretation of the Checketts’ vision, so closely aligned with his own.

While those specifics probably weren’t part of the original blueprint, once Checketts decided to pay the expansion fee, he knew in his heart that simply being the second major-league professional team in Utah would not satisfy either his aspirations, nor those of the individuals who had come together as a team – fighting for each other every step of the way – to dedicate their lives to fulfilling a vision. Becoming first a regional power, as the club did by capturing the Rocky Mountain Cup in 2007, was the initial step. Bucking the odds in 2009, first by even qualifying for the postseason, then by knocking off the defending champions, finally going on the road and winning on penalties not once but twice over star-studded, DP-laden sides suddenly gave Real Salt Lake the national profile its founder had always hoped for – nay, EXPECTED.

But as we’ve come to expect with Mr. Checketts, that wasn’t enough; the charge, just minutes after hoisting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on a misty evening in Seattle, was to do it again. The team dropped only five games in eight months from May 1 to Nov. 6 during its title defense, scoring more goals than any other MLS team, allowing the fewest goals any had in 15 prior seasons, making American soccer history as the first-ever side to win its CONCACAF Champions League group, placing a trio of players on the League’s “Best XI” selection, extending its home unbeaten streak to 33 consecutive games in all competitions.

Yet, as the 2011 campaign beckons, the air of unfinished business consumes this team and this organization. Dissatisfied with the lack of hardware last year, Real Salt Lake also seeks to deliver the last facet of Checketts’ original vision, international supremacy. Only through CONCACAF success will this side earn the right represent North American soccer on the grandest stage possible, the FIFA Club World Cup, against the likes of Barcelona or InterMilan or Boca Juniors and other continental champions.

It is that thirst for excellence and desire to test itself against all limits that inspires this club and its seven year old fan base; fans who were awakened to the power of the sport via missions to faraway lands, a visit by the iconic Real Madrid side, or simply a happenstance run-in with someone representing the Claret-and-Cobalt.

These are the fans whose offspring Dave Checketts and his partner Dell Loy Hansen imagine playing on fields across the Salt Lake Valley and in the shadow of Rio Tinto Stadium, aspiring to one day defend and bring honor to the shield of the team they grew up loving. Their dream – OUR dream, that of the entire RSL Nation – is not even a generation away, yet we see it embodied in the task at hand starting today, Feb. 22, 2011, as RSL commences its quest for a CONCACAF Champions League title.