For the last half of the decade, there have been many comments on how thriving lower division soccer leagues, such as the North American Soccer League (NASL), can benefit Major League Soccer. Fans of MLS are already witnessing the benefits that lower division soccer is having on a maturing league with the growth and "promotion" of the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Orlando City S.C. While clubs like Sacramento F.C. and Minnesota United vie for their own place in the top division, other NASL contributions to MLS are being overlooked.
The lower divisions of soccer in North America have been a talent pipeline since the inception of MLS. Years before league academies started producing talent, second-division NASL provided talent to the new top-tier soccer league in the United States and later Canada. Young skillful players have continued to make the journey from lower division soccer to the MLS. With RSL's roster being rounded out for preseason camp, we here at RSL Soapbox decided to take a look at the top five NASL players that have benefited Real Salt Lake.
Honorable Mention: Devon Sandoval
This might be a stretch, since Devon Sandoval has been under contract with RSL since he was drafted, but NASL action has undeniably helped his form. Suffering from the get-go of the 2014 season, Sandoval's sophomore slump was interrupted with a two-match loan to the Carolina RailHawks in September. While he struggled to find the back of the net with the Claret-and-Cobalt, Sandoval had a hay-day tearing apart the defenses of the NASL, scoring two goals in two matches. Despite not taking the field for RSL after the loan through the end of the season, the lower division helped Sandoval get some much needed developmental game time — a conundrum that should be resolved with the formation of the Real Monarchs.
5. Kwame Watson-Siriboe
A product of the University of Connecticut, Kwame Watson-Siriboe ranks fifth on the list. The 6-foot-3 center-back was drafted in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft by Chicago Fire, and after a disappointing start with the Fire, Watson-Siriboe was loaned to FC Tampa Bay of the NASL. Despite only being a half a season loan, Watson-Siriboe revitalized his career in the NASL.
After his successful loan stint with Tampa and yet another disappointing start of the season with the Fire, Kwame was traded to RSL for a fourth round Superdraft pick in July 2012. While never being able to consistently make the first-team, Kwame provided sturdy backup for injured RSL first-string center-backs. Also picking up minutes in CONCACAF Champions' League and US Open Cup play, Kwame was a center-piece to the RSL reserves. Slowly having his contributions whittled down and sustaining an injury halfway through the 2013 season, Watson-Siriboe was finally traded to MLS expansion side New York City FC in August 2014 to join a growing cohort of ex-Claret-and-Cobalt players.
4. Jonny Steele
The Northern Irishman's contributions to the Claret-and-Cobalt earned him the fourth spot on this list. Jonny Steele started his career in England before coming to North America. After an unsuccessful trial with MLS' then-Dallas Burn (later rebranded as FC Dallas) in 2003, Steele jumped around the lower divisions of North America until he secured a contract with the NASL side Vancouver Whitecaps in 2010.
While unsuccessful at first in British Columbia, Steele was transferred to FC Tampa Bay where he enjoyed a successful start until he was traded to his old team the Carolina RailHawks, now a member of the NASL. After nearly a decade journey in North America, Steele finally made it to MLS after signing a contract with Real Salt Lake in February 2012. During his only season with the club, Steele made 28 appearances, including 11 starts, recording two assists and two goals.
Jonny Steele became an impact player for RSL until he became a casualty of the salary cap along with six other players, including starters Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola, and Will Johnson. Despite only playing a single season with RSL, Steele made a name for his physicality and technical ability that led him to sign with the New York Red Bulls, joining his fellow RSL compatriots Olave and Espindola.
3. Paulo Júnior
The Brazilian striker known to many RSL fans as Paulo Jr. is number three on the list. A product of the Brazilian powerhouse Flamengo's youth academy, Paulo Jr. signed with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, known then as Miami FC, of the NASL. After enjoying two successful seasons with the NASL side, Paulo Jr. joined Real Salt Lake on loan.
While only given limited minutes during the 2010 MLS regular season, Paulo Jr. had an instant impact for the Claret-and-Cobalt in their run to the CONCACAF Champions' League final. During the final match of the CONCACAF Champions' League group-stage, Paulo Jr. scored a brace (2 goals) to propel the Claret-and-Cobalt past the Mexican giants, Cruz Azul, which helped him secure an additional loan spell with RSL with the option to purchase his rights.
After a successful 2011 season as a difference maker off-the-bench, Paulo Jr. production began to wane after RSL had purchased his rights and signed him through the 2014 season. RSL decided not to exercise his option after the 2012 season and he was picked up by the Vancouver Whitecaps.
After his initial success with then Miami FC, Paulo Jr. reached his highest potential with RSL. While not ending up being the dominate force that many expected him to be, Paulo Jr. did help RSL go farther in the CONCACAF Champions' League than any other MLS club. Paulo Jr. has since rejoined the NASL with the Ottawa Fury and might one day find his form that made him MLS material.
2. Jeff Attinella
After being drafted 14th overall by RSL in the 2011 MLS Supplemental Draft, Jeff Attinella trained with the Claret-and-Cobalt before being released in order to gain valuable experience with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, then known as FC Tampa Bay, of the NASL. So for the following two years, the Clearwater, Fla. native made a name for himself in the NASL. Not only did Attinella receive countless accolades for his time in the NASL, but he also helped his team win the 2012 NASL Championship.
After gaining more experience than most goalkeepers at his age, Attinella returned to the Claret-and-Cobalt in December 2012. Starting the 2013 season as RSL's third choice net-minder, Attinella quickly took the goal as Nick Rimando's backup. In his first season with RSL, Attinella would make five appearances and secure his first MLS shutout.
His success continued into the 2014 season. During each of the ten appearances he made in 2014, Attinella managed to come out of every match with at least one physics-defying save. Attinella managed to collect two Save of the Week awards while leading RSL to three clean sheets - becoming arguably the best reserve keeper in the league.
Despite sitting behind the best goalkeeper in league history, Attinella continues to step up time and time again when his name is called. While Attinella is inarguably another prodigy that Real Salt Lake has a way of producing, it is undeniable that the experience he gained in the NASL has helped him excel in MLS. With incredible ability to read the game and irrefutable skill, it is no wonder that Attinella comes in second on our list.
1. Luke Mulholland
Although Real Salt Lake has managed to pluck some amazing talent from the NASL, no one has been more successful than Luke Mulholland. Coming out of a relatively unknown background in the lower divisions of American soccer, the English midfielder made an instant impact on the Claret-and-Cobalt in the 2014 season. The first of Cassar's men - players specifically signed under Jeff Cassar's tenure as head coach - Mulholland secured a starting spot in the starting XI from nearly day one. Mulholland is expected to represent the future of the Claret-and-Cobalt under Cassar and so far he has delivered.
Since moving to the United States, Mulholland has quickly climbed the North American soccer pyramid. After spending time in the USL Premier Development League while in college, Mulholland quickly made the leap to the third-tier USL Pro when he signed with the Wilmington Hammerheads in 2010. After making the USL Pro's Team of the Year and earning the league's Rookie of the Year award, Mulholland made yet another jump to the second division signing with NSC Minnesota Stars, later re-dubbed Minnesota United, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2011 and 2012, respectively. A series of solid performances helped his club reach and win the NASL cup final in both 2011 and 2012.
After yet another standout season in the NASL, the 26-year-old midfielder signed with the Claret-and-Cobalt on January 21, 2014. Reaching the top of the North American soccer pyramid, Mulholland continued to produce solid performances match in and match out. During his first season with RSL, Mulholland scored six goals and tallied seven assists. Even more impressive still, Luke managed to secure a starting position in Cassar's diamond midfield displacing Gil for most of the season.
Mulholland has shown his ability to be a good all-around player. Playing the role of a traditional number eight, Mulholland has great ability on and off the ball, possessing the ball and making the channel runs. Playing in a similar style to the recently New York City F.C. man Ned Grabavoy, Mulholland's workhorse attitude will continue to benefit RSL as he will likely take on a larger role for the club in 2015.