On Friday, Real Salt Lake holds the 17th overall pick in the first round of the 2019 MLS SuperDraft in Chicago. After already signing five Academy products for the 2019 season – Julian Vazquez, Luis Arriaga, David Ochoa, Tate Schmitt and Erik Holt – RSL has a slew of young talent joining the ranks to supplement the addition of midfielder Everton Luiz and the returns of Luke Mulholland and Tony Beltran after injuries limited the veteran pair in 2018. With all of that added to a roster that made a run to the Western Conference Semifinals, the picture is beginning to take shape for 2019 as preseason approaches. Ahead of the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, we sat down with RSL General Manager Craig Waibel for a quick look ahead at what’s to come before training camp starts on January 21.
Q: You’ve signed five Academy players for 2019. How does that shape perspective heading into 2019 already with five young players with no professional experience?
Waibel: “It’s no secret over the last three years that we’ve had a massive focus on youth development with an even more massive focus on our own Academy players. So this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. But the piece that unlocks a little bit more of the story and the mindset is that you can’t keep adding young guys unless the guys you already have are developing. The balance is potential vs. performance. That’s the conversation. When does that young player’s potential reach performance? Last year we saw a myriad of examples where those young, talented players contributed and our fans got to see it firsthand in our stadium. They got to feel it, they got to see it, they got to experience that young, developing player over and over again. That’s a credit to the coaching staff training those players, developing those players and playing those players. Without that, you can’t keep fulfilling this vision of development. That’s the first step. The second step is then do you have the players? And we do. We’ve signed five players in the last five months and there are three more that we really are considering signing now because the Academy is that talented. But the progression plan that we have for these guys are evolving as the league is getting better, as some of our young guys are developing into forces of nature within our starting 11 and subs off the bench in our first team. The progression plan is what we’re about now. It’s about building the right structure so all of these players can develop into first team players. That’s what we’re focused on as a front office – to help build rosters that give our coaches opportunities to develop players beyond what they are right now.”
Q: To balance that youth, you’ve added Everton Luiz and keeping Tony Beltran and Luke Mulholland who weren’t available for most of the season due to injury …
Waibel: “I would say we’re mixing those guys back in who never left and always had a great influence in the locker room. We are really looking for them to be leaders and contributors where last year they were only able to exemplify leadership. WE’ve added Everton Luiz – an experienced player who gives us balance. Donny Toia who has league experience and is familiar with our club. So I think when you’re balancing the five players we’ve signed, continuing to sign experienced players within the first team and adding to it with the draft, what we really need to take into consideration is the progression plan of the five players we already signed, the experience we’ve added for balance and what does this draft represent? Hopefully it’s a player we can develop. We want to draft players that buy into the concept of development. Not every player in this draft has the humility to understand what development means. They’ve been the star of their team their whole life. It’s a bit of a gut check when you walk into a professional locker room and you realize that you’re not the top of the totem pole and you’ve got to get there. How do you solve that riddle again? It starts with buy-in and it starts with humility. We conducted interviews with players while we were in Florida at the Combine and the top of our list is a character person who just so happens to be a pretty solid soccer player. Hopefully at 17 we get the guy we want. With the homework we do on college players, we think we have a player that - if we’re able to select - fits perfectly into the mold of a guy who understands this is about development over the next two years to find out if you’re going to be a professional with longevity.”
Q: Preview the next month for Real Salt Lake. What can fans expect to see before the season starts?
Waibel: “There will be additions. At least one, possibly two. There could be roster movement, depending on if we feel it makes the team better in one way, shape or form. Financially, structurally, environment, performance, potential – all of those factors come in. Any of those, in any increment, has justification. We feel we are going to add one or two more impactful players in the coming weeks. We’re confident that the balance of our locker room is closer today than it was at the end of last season in terms of environment, identity and arguably the character that resembles our fanbase. This group is truly starting to represent this stadium again. It’s taken a couple of turns to get back there, but I think because we’ve stuck to our identity and we believe in what we said we were going to become two or three years ago, the fans are starting to see that. Mike has done a great job with his staff of getting the players to buy into it. The most important piece and the people who deserve the most credit, the players have bought into it and fight for these fans as if they are family. That’s the most important thing that we take into consideration as go through these decisions over the next couple of weeks.”