NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series about the transfer window. Stay tuned to RSL.com for Parts 2 and 3 in coming days and weeks.
On the walls in Craig Waibel’s “War Room” at Rio Tinto Stadium, he has mapped out Real Salt Lake’s roster composition, breaking down the salary budgets, the depth charts, the different and nuanced roster categories that each player falls into and a wishlist.
In other areas of his office, he has similar data peppering files and documents detailing the projections that he and his staff have for the club in each of the next three transfer windows. That detailed preparation sets the table for RSL’s General Manager to prioritize the club’s short-term and long-term needs as he looks to enhance the roster from one window to the next, constantly asking the questions, “Where can we get better? Which position should we be looking to improve on next?”
The answers to those questions are sometimes obvious, but other times, new variables factor into the equation as players fight through injuries, new money is introduced to the budget by the league through Targeted Allocation Money and new players become available through the transfer market – both within MLS and abroad.
“It’s a steady progression for us, making the roster better in every position. Then starting over and doing it again. It’s not with the intent of ever moving guys in and out harmfully or intentionally. The idea is to one day get to the point where we don’t have to make any moves and it’s more about maintaining the quality of the roster,” Waibel explained. “The last 18 months we’ve focused on getting a little better in each window in certain positions. Then all the surprises happen – injuries, trades that we might not have seen coming – players that are now interesting to other teams and things pop up. Players internationally that want to come to MLS. Everything has to be flexible to a certain extent.”
During the just-completed summer transfer window, RSL had plenty of irons in the fire – dominoes that had the potential to restructure major portions of the roster if they had fallen in the right order. And while the only summer addition came in center back Marcelo Silva, the conversations that Waibel and his staff had all over the world have created a deeper pool of players to work with when the club progresses through the different transfer windows.
Silva was an addition 18 months in the making as RSL looked to improve at the center back position. As early as the winter window in 2016, Waibel had been in negotiations with a few international targets. Some approached agreements, others were eliminated early in the process. All told, Waibel estimates he and his staff evaluated over 300 players in the position before deciding to offer Silva a contract.
“It’s a long arduous process to find the right player, identify the guy we want, connect with them and actually gauge the interest and get the deal done. We had two handshake deals done prior to this with center backs. I believe we got the best of the three when Marcelo agreed to come here and signed his contract,” Waibel said. “The process starts with complete identification. Connecting with them. Interviewing. Flying. Traveling. Sitting down with them. It all goes into making sure you pick the right player.”
The processes Waibel and his staff institute go far beyond finding the most talented player in a given position. While on-field talent is a major factor, it is far from the only indicator of how a player will fit in Real Salt Lake’s locker room and how he will affect the needs of the team moving forward.
Over the course of the 2017 season, RSL has added three major components to the locker room – Albert Rusnák, Jefferson Savarino and Silva. The first two were signed as Young Designated Players, which count as lower hits to the salary budget than older Designated Players. Silva, meanwhile, was signed using Targeted Allocation Money – a mechanism created last summer to add money to the salary budget aimed at improving the upper-middle portion of the roster.
Each player had a different process by which he arrived in Utah and that further emphasized the flexibility of Waibel and his staff.
“Those three guys were hours and hours and hours of not only watching, but working and connecting with, making sure they were the right person. By the time we get to the point where we are interested in a player, we are dead set convinced that they are the right guy,” Waibel said. “That’s not to say they were the only players we identified. We eliminate players for some of the strictest of reasons. We have a very narrow scope on what we believe is going to fit here. We don’t stray from it. We have a good hold of what our fans want and what we want as a club. So it doesn’t take a lot to tick a box that eliminates you from the process. It doesn’t take days and days to eliminate someone. We like to be very thorough on the amount of leagues and teams and players we look at.”
In the case of Silva, the process started in the winter, well before the club even made contact with his agents or his club. Coming from the second division in Spain, the scouting process was much more involved than had he come from a top league around the world or MLS – leagues with matches regularly televised and analyzed in the U.S.
While viewing second-division Spanish matches add an additional hurdle to the process, it is just one of the many speed bumps the team encounters when seeking out the right fit for the locker room.
“We watch a lot of games – first division, second division from a lot of countries that other people don’t bother watching,” Waibel said, crediting Head Scout Andy Williams and Scout Dane Murphy for identifying and pursuing Silva. “Dane and Andy watched a little more video on him and took a liking to him. From there, we started watching him week-in, week-out.”
On the field, Silva met much of the criteria sought by RSL.
Calm on the ball.
Good in distribution.
Good 1v1 defender.
Simple in his decisions.
A leader on the field and in the locker room.
“We ticked about 20 boxes and he fit the majority of those boxes,” Waibel said.
After watching match after match and determining that Silva would be a good fit, Waibel and Murphy arranged for a meeting with him in Spain. That meeting, to Waibel, was the final and most crucial identifier.
“There are a lot of really good soccer players in the world – a lot of great soccer players. But when you sit down with someone, you can learn a lot about them when you look them in the eye,” he said. “We flew over to Europe and sat down with Marcelo and spent about 3.5-4 hours together. By the time we stood up from the table, we knew it was the right fit.”
Like the two biggest acquisitions that came before him in the 2017 season, Silva has proven to be a boon for RSL in the second half of the season.
Through 25 matches, Rusnák has five goals and seven assists, ranking third on the team in goals and first in assists. Still just 23 years old, the Slovakian playmaker has had a hand in nearly 43 percent of the club’s non-penalty goals this season and his contributions in the last six matches have contributed to the club’s 3-0-3 record during the unbeaten stretch.
Savarino has started in 12 matches, seeing RSL go 6-3-3 with 20 goals (1.67 per match, as opposed to 0.85 per match when he wasn’t in the XI). The 20-year-old Venezuelan winger has three goals and three assists in that stretch too.
Meanwhile Silva has made the quick adjustment to the new league, starting in each of the last four matches since joining the Claret-and-Cobalt. In that time, RSL is 1-0-3 with two consecutive shutouts and a 0.75 goals against average.
As Waibel progresses and adds more experience and staff to his arsenal, he is having increasing success in finding the right players, particularly on the international market. And as the club prepares to move operations to the new facility in Herriman, Waibel’s War Room is getting more and more decorated.