Real Monarchs are in the USL Championship Final on Sunday, squaring off with Louisville City FC from Lynn Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. For Real Salt Lake, the second-division club’s success is more than just a chance to earn a third championship at three different levels following the 2009 MLS Cup title and 2012 USSDA U-17 championship. It also provides further affirmation in the long-term plans to champion youth development throughout the organization.
In 2019, Real Salt Lake led Major League Soccer in minutes played by Academy products for the second consecutive season. The youth movement on the field has translated to success in the standings, with RSL finishing third in the Western Conference in 2019 and advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals for the second straight year. Only one other team in MLS – Atlanta United – has advanced in the MLS Cup Playoffs in both 2018 and 2019.
In addition to the 12 RSL Academy products on RSL’s roster, the Monarchs have also been a key developmental piece in the success of the first team. Four players – Nick Besler, Douglas Martinez, Justin Portillo and Andrew Putna – were signed to MLS contracts after stints with the USL club. And several other key contributors – Justen Glad, Sebastian Saucedo, Corey Baird and Aaron Herrera, just to name a few – honed their crafts with the Monarchs before seeing significant MLS playing time.
“The Monarchs are an integral part of what we do in our developmental pipeline. Over the five years that the Monarchs have existed, the way we’ve utilized them has evolved,” Real Salt Lake Interim General Manager Elliot Fall said. “I think what you see now is a result of fine-tuning that approach.”
Now one match away from lifting the USL Championship trophy, the Monarchs feature several RSL players on loan who have used the opportunity to gain valuable experience like those that came before them. Along with Portillo and Martinez, David Ochoa, Erik Holt and Tate Schmitt – all products of the RSL Academy – have been regular starters during the club’s playoff run. Meanwhile, Luke Mulholland has added a veteran presence in the middle of the park to supplement the youthful exuberance of his developing teammates.
“We identify veteran players that still have upside potential, but are also players who understand the league and provide the structure for our young players to develop. Then we can allow them to continue their development, but in an environment that is competitive where they learn how to be successful in a professional setting,” Fall said. “It’s important for those young kids to be in an environment that is competitive. And we need them to be in an environment where they learn what it takes. Then in time those young players become the veterans in terms of professional experience and they can lead the group and show the next class of players how to be successful at the professional level.”
USL veterans Jack Blake, Kalen Ryden, Konrad Plewa, James Moberg, Noah Powder and Maikel Chang provide the experience while the international additions of Lionel Etoundi, Ricardo Avila, Cristian Calix and Luis Palma – all 22 years old or younger – show a clear eye toward further development. The mid-season transfer of defender Stanley Okumo for a USL-record transfer fee is even further affirmation in the youth development plan.
Thus far, the Monarchs have the 2017 USL Regular Season Championship Shield in their trophy case to show for it and is one of two USL Championship sides with direct MLS ties that has reached the playoffs the last three years, joined by New York Red Bulls II.
The conveyer belt of talent isn’t about to stop there though.
Under the guidance of Academy Director Tom Spall, the RSL U-17s are 6-0-1 thus far in the USSDA season and after a slow start the U-15s have won five straight matches to improve to 6-2-3 on the year.
Kickoff in the USL Championship Final is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. MT with live television coverage on ESPN2.