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This Is the Place: Dave Checketts’ indelible mark on Utah soccer

When Dave Checketts went to Europe to spread the word of basketball, he came back with the his first visions of Real Salt Lake.

MLS Cup Portraits Photo by Harry How/Getty Images for MLS

Two-and-a-half years after Major League Soccer’s contraction that saw both its Florida teams go the way of the dinosaur and its own near-demise, the league looked to be making a resurgence.

For the first time since 1998, MLS was expanding having attracted interest from Deportivo Guadalajara, one of Mexico’s most recognized and avidly followed soccer brands, C.D. Guadalajara (known colloquially as Chivas), won the rights to bring a second franchise to Los Angles area in 2004 to start playing in the subsequent season but the league’s ambition did not stop there.

On July 14, 2004, the league was set to make a historic announcement with its partner SCP Worldwide. The broadcast was met with some surprise as it was revealed that Salt Lake City would host the twelfth Major League Soccer franchise. Directing this new enterprise was founder and then-owner Dave Checketts, who previously held the role of president and general manager of the Utah Jazz at a mere 27 years old. Checketts, a longtime fan of the Real Madrid brand, hoped to instill his new franchise with at least some of the passion and ingenuity found in Spain.

DC United v Real Salt Lake Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

In the early 1990s, Checketts was working with the National Basketball Association to take basketball to Europe. While trying to build European love for the then-American sport, he found himself enthralled with soccer. Returning from abroad, Checketts found that he desired to bring soccer to the United States as much as he wanted to bring basketball to Europe.

During his pursuit of a franchise in the Salt Lake Valley, Checketts wanted an authentic organization and name. “We wanted a name where no one would question what sport the team is playing,” Checketts told the New York Times. So when the opportunity arose in 2004, Checketts knew right where to go.

“In Madrid, I was looking at an organization that was amazing,” Checketts said, “I wanted to draw on Real Madrid’s brand credibility . . . and that’s what Real Salt Lake (did).”

Later in 2004, Checketts obtained approval from Real Madrid’s board of directors to use moniker ‘Real’. The name Real, in fact, has a history of being granted and not inherent. Before 1920, Real Madrid was known as el Club Español de Madrid (The Spanish Club of Madrid). The organization’s name was not changed until the Spanish King granted the club the title of Royal (Real in Spanish) and began referring to them as his team.

When asked about Checketts, then-president of Real Madrid Ramón Calderón had this to say: “We have realized that he could be the right man to expand our brand in the States. More and more people are interested in this sport and last year we saw the spirit and color of the shirt when we were in Salt Lake City. This is the right man. The right company. They can help us.”

Like Calderón, Checketts felt Utah was ready for an authentic soccer team, and he was prepared to give them one.

Even after public polls were held to investigate names such as the Pioneers and Highlanders, Checketts felt that none of them lived up to his vision. So with the words, “You’re going to be our sister team; go with our blessing,” the name Real Salt Lake was born.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Officially, the new name was launched in October 2004 at the temporary home of the franchise, Rice-Eccles Stadium. The University of Utah football stadium was selected to house the team while Checketts sought support to construct a permanent, soccer-specific stadium in the Salt Lake area.

The team’s then-owner made another confounding decision to make claret (red) and cobalt (blue) the organization’s colors. This crucial branding decision was, in a way, an attempt to bring all of Utah together. Utah is ground zero for an intense college sports rivalry known by locals as the “Holy War,” between the University of Utah (the U) and Brigham Young University (the Y), their primary colors being red and blue, respectively. Like Checketts, who had bridged the divide earning his bachelors at the U and then his masters from the Y, he had hoped that this color scheme employed by RSL would bring all Utah’s residents together.

Despite inadvertently cloaking Real Madrid’s sister club in similar home colors to their rivals FC Barcelona, the RSL organization helped shape a distinctive club identity which has been modeled by other clubs in the league. For instance, the Kansas City Wizards front office took note of the expansion side who would follow in their footsteps and re-brand in a similarly remarkable, European-styled identity.

Real Salt Lake v Chicago Fire Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A month later and the club signed their first player. Coming in a trade from the Dallas Burn, RSL acquired star striker Jason Kreis. It would be this trade that shaped the franchise for years to come. Not only did Kreis score the club’s first goal in franchise history against the LA Galaxy, but he also became the organization’s second ever coach and lead the Claret-and-Cobalt to the MLS Cup in 2009. Without a doubt, Kreis and the early history of RSL are forever entwined.

The roster was pieced together by then-head coach John Ellinger over the next several months. Ellinger looked to add experience with other notable acquisitions including decorated MLS veterans Clint Mathis, Eddie Pope, and Jeff Cunningham. By the time March rolled around, RSL was ready to embark on their inaugural 2005 MLS Season.

Finally, on April 2, 2005, Checketts’ dream was realized when Real took to the pitch for the first time. On a windy, rain-soaked night on the other side of the country, RSL played the New York MetroStars to a scoreless draw under the lights of Giants Stadium. And thus, a club and a culture was born along the Wasatch Front.

Do you have any memories of RSL founding? Were you there and would like to tell us about it? Share your story in the comments section below.