Commentary: High-rollers not built for CCL success

RSL's Lagerwey says DPs may not help in pursuit of title

Garth Lagerwey gets frequent interview requests from reporters looking for a Major League Soccer exec to cry foul. And Lagerwey, with the measured, honest and pitch-perfect delivery of a man who has rehearsed this script for years, always seem to oblige.

He’s the go-to guy for most issues that divide the league these days, especially the growing discrepancy between big market teams and teams like his, a successful but still relatively diminutive Real Salt Lake franchise stuck on an island with the water suddenly creeping in on all sides.

He’s also a staunch believer that Designated Players will help make the league, but they don’t necessarily make a league champion. RSL’s comparatively limited budget aside, Lagerwey and RSL have stuck to a team-first philosophy in an increasingly me-first era of lucrative DP contracts, and he doesn’t seem inclined to change his philosophy any time soon.

And why should he? Lagerwey was vindicated in 2009 with the club’s first league championship, a title earned largely by blue-collar players and a coach few believed could resurrect the franchise, all at the expense of a gilded LA Galaxy roster that made his club’s payroll look like change Tim Leiweke found in his sofa.

[inline_node:318077]RSL in turn rewarded him last week with a contract extension through 2014, meaning there are four more years to come of Lagerwey’s opinions on the league.

And these days, most of those seem to be concerned with an RSL team that returned to action in the CONCACAF Champions League against Toronto FC on Wednesday after a wild journey two weeks ago left them licking their wounds and shaking their heads.

“They’re exhausted, quite honestly,” Lagerwey said in the days following RSL’s 5-4 loss to Cruz Azul in their CCL opener last month. “When you play two games in four days and travel 5,400 miles … no other league in the world would contemplate this, let alone do it.”

RSL are in their first foray in the Champions League, the tournament that took them through a deluge in Mexico City before they turned around for a league match more than 2,000 miles away in Toronto just four days later. They played admirably in both considering the circumstances, although they let the league’s first-ever meaningful win in Mexico slip away against Cruz Azul despite rolling out their first team against last year’s CCL runners-up.

They’re tired now, but it’s about to get worse. RSL topped Toronto FC 4-1 in Champions League play on Wednesday and will now play eight total matches in the next six weeks, beginning with a league match against Chicago on Saturday.

They’ll eventually suit up for another CCL matchup on Sept. 22 with Árabe Unido in coastal Panama, roughly 3,000 miles from home. They’ll also play MLS playoff contenders New York, FC Dallas and Colorado, looking to somehow stay in the postseason chase in pursuit of a second straight league crown and their first-ever Supporters’ Shield.

Cue the reinforcements. A midseason signing, a Designated Player with European credo and a deft scoring touch, or a midfield general who dictates the pace when things get too hairy. That’s what they’re there for, right? Superman emerging from the phone booth at the first sign of distress?

Wrong. Not for Real Salt Lake and certainly not for Lagerwey, who thinks the increased emphasis on DPs could have adverse affects for MLS teams looking to win the CCL title.

“As the salary cap is right now, it’s very, very challenging to have three DPs and also have a deep team,” Lagerwey said. “And if you don’t have a deep team, I don’t know how you survive if you make it to the Champions League. The scheduling demands with the Champions League, I think, are going to have a huge bearing on whether or not DPs can be effective.”

The congested MLS and CCL schedules have long stressed the need for depth among MLS teams. And the clubs most highly regarded in this year’s tournament – RSL and Columbus – not coincidentally boast perhaps the longest benches in the league, with hopes of winning the league’s first tourney title since 2000 pinned on team-first mentalities before individual star power.

[inline_node:318373]At the other end of the spectrum sit New York, a team RSL beat 1-0 on Sept. 4 and will face again on Oct. 9 at Red Bull Arena.

Roughly 31 percent of the team’s payroll is wrapped up in the trio of Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez, and that percentage will jump to 40 percent if all three return as Designated Players at the start of the 2011 season.

Chicago, too, who travel to Rio Tinto on Saturday, have a good portion of their payroll tied up in their Designated Players Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo, and even floated the idea of adding a third DP this season.

That leaves little wiggle room to fill any holes outside of either club’s stars, meaning that even if the Red Bulls or Fire win the MLS Cup in November, they’ll potentially compete in next year’s Champions League tournament with fewer resources than they have now.

In contrast, the salary cap damage done by RSL’s three highest-paid players – midfielder Kyle Beckerman, defender Jamison Olave and midfielder Javier Morales – clocks in at 27 percent. Real Salt Lake still have the money to shore up their bench with quality depth like midfielders Nelson Gonzalez and Jean Alexandre, who have a combined 23 appearances for the club this season, and there’s more than pocket change left over after that.

It’s a simple equation. More money for depth equals better odds at being the best team in CONCACAF.

“The timing of these games and the number of the games you’re playing during the most critical stretch of the season, I just wonder about the benefits of multiple DPs in the next few years,” Lagerwey said.

He’s wary of the league’s bend towards older Designated Players, too. The gauntlet RSL will run through in the coming weeks will be especially unkind on the players on the wrong side of 30, offering little recovery time and demanding extensive travel. The tour taxes older players like victory lap gone awry, asking them to play with the energy and resilience of their first days in the league when some are gradually entering the twilight of their careers.

The average age of the eight Designated Players signed to contracts this year in MLS is exactly 30 years old (including Kansas City’s Omar Bravo, who will join the club in 2011). Add in holdovers like Ángel, David Beckham, Freddie Ljungberg and Julian de Guzman, and the average jumps to roughly 33 years old.

That’s not good enough for Lagerwey.

[inline_node:315443]“Right now, not only is your salary cap top-heavy, but you’re invested in older players who, statistically speaking, are less likely to be able to handle long trips and lots of games,” he said. “That’s something that we won’t get any proof of one way or the other this season, but I think long term, that’s a bigger issue.”

Lagerwey’s not alone in his commitment to winning the CCL. MLS teams have long preached the importance of the tournament, both for their own individual brand recognition and for the increased profile and credibility of the league.

Seattle Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer, for example, told the Seattle Times last month: “I think that it is our opportunity as a league to showcase ourselves regionally and internationally. We as an organization feel like we're giving it the right amount of respect and attention.”

And the Sounders stood behind their words, when they chartered what Hanauer called an "extremely expensive" flight to Honduras, where they eventual fell to Marathón in the teams’ CCL opener on Aug. 19.

But Seattle are a franchise that has already successfully courted three Designated Players in less than two years on the MLS map. Owners with deep pockets can do that, as can a home field atmosphere that’s well recognized as the best in the league, with more than 30,000 fans showing up regularly at Qwest Field to watch the Sounders play.

Lagerwey feels like he has a longer road to increasing the profile and recognition of a market like Salt Lake City, the league’s smallest by nearly 300,000 residents to its closest competitor (Kansas City).

“We’re not New York,” Lagerwey said. “You’re going to see very different people who are drawn to Salt Lake City than might be drawn to New York or Los Angeles.”

[inline_node:316387]The CCL path to drawing those players, at least so far, has worked. Part of the appeal that brought Costa Rican forward and former CONCACAF Champions' Cup winner Alvaro Saborio to Utah before the season was the appeal that RSL would challenge for the Champions League title this year.

With a team-high eight goals and four assists in league play this season, Saborío is one of the most vital cogs on RSL and a sure-fire candidate for MLS Newcomer of the Year, and proof that the aura of the Champions League – and not necessarily a Designated Player – can help RSL level the playing field in the future.

“We can’t outspend New York,” Lagerwey said. “But we can provide an environment where good players want to come and where good players can find consistent success.”

“In order to counteract some of the higher profiles of markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Toronto, we have to win,” he added. “We have to win in high-profile competitions and we have to win in Champions League. It’s a vital part of these smaller market teams going forward.”

Will the day come when RSL does, in fact, sign a Designated Player? Who knows. The league has changed so dramatically and the balance has tilted so much in this new era that even staunch team-first guys like Lagerwey might someday be convinced differently on how to keep up with the Joneses.

He has at least four more years on the job to change his mind. But for now, Lagerwey is sticking to the script.

“We like what we’re doing here,” he said. “We like the team we’re building.”