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Why hasn't RSL been able to sign a center back?

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Matt Montgomery

We're all sitting here waiting for Real Salt Lake to bring in a fresh face at center back, and we know that wait's been arduous at times. The team knows that, too, given everything they've said about trying to find a center back.

But it's been tough. I know it seems like a cop-out to talk about the salary cap here, but we really need to. At the very least, it will help us understand why it's been so difficult to bring players in, and why the team has been outbid on at least one of the players they've targeted.

First, let us remind ourselves that we have three designated players currently: Joao Plata, Juan Manuel Martinez, and Yura Movsisyan. That limits the team unless they move out of one of those players, and we should rest assured that they've displayed no indications that they're interested in that.

It comes down to a fundamental rule in soccer salaries: Goalscorers almost always earn more than defenders, and the best teams often shape their collective salaries around adding good players in attacking roles to the team. That's the case whether we're talking about teams in MLS, who have a salary cap, or with teams across the world with limited funds. Of course, that's less the case with the so-called 'Super Clubs' who have more-or-less unlimited funds.

Now, we should also recall targeted allocation money: We don't yet know how that's been used by Real Salt Lake to this point, but it could play a role in RSL's bringing in a defender. But it doesn't add an unlimited fund to the team's efforts, so let's save that discussion for a minute.

With all that in mind, Real Salt Lake is probably looking for players in the salary range of $400,000 to $600,000. If the team has any targeted allocation money available, that target could move toward the higher end of that (or even slightly beyond that.) But in general, that's the type of player RSL is in the market for.

That doesn't seem too difficult on the face of it — but this is a market that many other teams are playing in right now that have greater flexibility of funds. They might be looking for players who fit that bill but have greater upside, and are willing to offer more money in exchange for a signed contract. They might be looking for veteran players who are in the twilight years of their careers but can offer more in response to another contract. It's difficult — and we saw that with the attempted acquisition of Colombian center back Oswaldo Henriquez, who went to Recife for an estimated tripled salary from the offer RSL was able to make.

That's not because they were trying to lowball the player. More, it was because they offered what they could, and another team was able to easily outstrip that. That's the issue with players in this range. In the past, maybe we looked for a player in the $200,000 range — think Jamison Olave at his arrival. We certainly lucked out a bit in that case, and he proved to be worth more than that. Indeed, we received offers for him during his prime but kept him on the team.

Still, he was very much in our range when he arrived, and he hadn't quite attracted the interest from the better teams in the Western hemisphere at that point. But we're now looking at players that are starting from a higher level (we have to if our aim is to improve our defense and not simply add more of the same) and, as a result, attracting greater amounts of interest.

This doesn't make it impossible to find a center back, but it has certainly made it difficult. We're in a higher-level market now, and we're finding it difficult to navigate. That shouldn't necessarily reflect on Craig Waibel, of course — I think we're seeing most of MLS struggling to navigate it, too. Let's look at LA Galaxy — they've just signed Ashley Cole, a 35-year-old left back, who played 11 games with Roma between July 2014 and earlier this month, a year-and-a-half span. Maybe they'd make the move regardless, but it seems like one of those moves that doesn't happen if they can successfully bring in a younger, better left back.

So let's bring it all back around: Why hasn't Real Salt Lake been able to make it happen? We've had an instance of a contract being one-upped, an instance of something we haven't heard explicit news about (the first center back they targeted), and an instance of a player having some sort of personal life change happen (although it hasn't ruled him out at this point) — it's a little maddening, but it's also the name of the transfer game. These are all valid reasons things hit a snag. Could the team have had some sort of backup measure? Well, maybe — but it doesn't seem like you could start negotiations with a player then pull out if other negotiations finish first. Keep in mind that these three potential center back signings have all reached the "here's a contract" stage, and it becomes a little more clear why we're in this position.

It's a position for which the team needs to solve, certainly, but at the same time, there are pretty clear indications of why it's been difficult at times. What's next? That remains to be seen, but it's hardly the end of the season if RSL starts with this center back setup — but adapting and learning on the fly is hardly the best way to operate, and thrusting young center backs into the mix doesn't always yield dividends.