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Real Salt Lake’s path forward: A GW professor talks Utah’s soccer community

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“A soccer team is different from a meat packing plant, it’s different from a pop-up, it’s not the Wienermobile. If a soccer team is going to succeed it has to be a part of the community.”

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Peter Loge is an Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., with “over 20 years of experience in communications including a presidential appointment at the Food and Drug Administration and senior positions for Sen. Edward Kennedy and three members of the U.S. House of Representatives.”

In 2018 he published Soccer Thinking for Management Success: Lessons for Organizations from the World’s Game. I spoke with him this week regarding the recent organizational issues at Real Salt Lake, and what a new ownership group should focus on. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your website states that in soccer “players constantly share information, encourage and correct each other, and keep each other going. The best staff, managers and organizations do the same.” In Lucas Muller’s recent RSL Soapbox article “Employees describe toxic RSL culture: ‘rotten from the top down’” a former RSL staffer stated, “We couldn’t express a concern and have that concern be validated.” What does that do to a culture when people can’t express concerns and have those concerns be validated?

That’s a good question and we’ve all worked in those organizations where we feel like we’re just a piece of meat, that what we do doesn’t really matter. Because of that, we don’t do our best work. But, more importantly, the organization doesn’t succeed as much as they can. It’s not getting the best input, it’s not getting the best feedback.

There are all sorts of stories about how in the best operating rooms everybody chimes in if something happening is wrong, because everybody in the operating room knows everybody else’s roles. A doctor or a surgeon will miss something important and a nurse or somebody else on the team will raise a red flag. If you’re not getting constant feedback people die.

Look at you, you teach Middle School. You’re a white guy from Idaho teaching kids, some of whom are first generation students whose parents fled violence in Guatemala or Honduras. How do you get them involved? You could guess. Or instead of relying on just what you know, you can talk to your colleagues. If you do that you’re a better teacher. Your kids do better because you’re paying attention to them. They succeed and the school succeeds.

Many of us giving feedback know that not all of the feedback we give will be taken. But if I at least feel like my feedback is being valued and someone explains to me why they’re not taking it, then I will do a better job and the organization will do better. And sometimes I’ll have a better idea.

I want to read a few more quotes from Muller’s article:

“Hansen told her he could get a high school student to do their job for free, so she should feel grateful to have a job at all.”

“I could literally kill myself working for this team and it would not matter to Dell Loy Hansen,” the employee said. “I could kill myself working for the team and Dell Loy would wipe my blood off his hands and say, ‘OK, onto the next person.’”

Andy Carroll said “If (insert sales person) doesn’t help us get these numbers up, he’ll be in the unemployment line next month.”

What does behavior like this do to a culture?

That’s a terrible culture. That’s astonishing. Why would I do good work for someone who doesn’t value me? It’s poisonous. An organization has to work for each other. A soccer team is different from a meat packing plant, it’s different from a pop-up, it’s not the Wienermobile. If a soccer team is going to succeed it has to be a part of the community.

In RSL’s case that’s three franchises, plus facilities, plus the youth engagement. There’s this really terrific opportunity but you have to have the community engaged. You have to have the fans engaged. You have to feel as though you’re part of something larger than yourself, something to invest in emotionally.

That’s how the best teams succeed. I’m not going to let my defender down, I’m not going to let my coach down. But if my manager thinks I’m disposable, if you think a high school level kid can do my job, I’m going to do high school level work. And I’m looking for my next job.

It’s like a soccer team. I’d rather be on a team of 11 guys who are pretty good and work hard for each other than on a team of 11 guys who are really good but don’t care less who their teammates are. You see this at the top level. Liverpool is 11 guys who play for each other and you see teams like Barca who don’t do that anymore.

At RSL, you’ve got guys who spent their whole career there. Look at Kyle Beckerman. It’s his town, and reading his comments recently he’s really invested in the success of the franchise. I think people believe Kyle because he exudes being a good person on and off the field. I’d go work for Kyle.

Another article on your website is titled “Diverse Teams and Organizations Succeed”. How would you define diversity, and what role does diversity play in success?

Yeah that’s an interesting question. The thing you’re referring to is based on a 2014 study that looked at European clubs. The teams that looked broadly for talent ended up doing better because they brought in different ideas. They’re better because they have different perspectives.

You look at research on diverse soccer teams what it means to bring in different playing styles, languages, backgrounds, or whatever. You need to have a clear goal but you also need a clear vision of how you’re going to achieve it- what is our system? What is our approach? What’s “The Barcelona Way”?

Kyle Beckerman has an approach to the game. His style of play has changed now that he’s older, but his approach to the game remains the same. You need a clear approach to the game, to say here’s who we are as a club, here’s who we are as a series of clubs, here’s who we are in the community. This is what RSL stands for. Then you go find people you think are going to be a good fit in that system.

Some of them you’ve got to hire from within. You’ve got to raise people up from within, because then they see a path forward. So it’s finding a mix- here’s who we are, here’s our identity, here’s what we stand for. Now how do we bring in a number of people to do this?

So if I’m at RSL, you do have to pay attention to the budget side, you do have to sell tickets, and you’ve got to make it exciting. Which means looking at your fan bases, right? So maybe you want to look at some Hispanic players because maybe the Hispanic community is under tapped. Look, I want to get you in to see the national team player from the Mexican national team, because maybe you watch Liga MX. Once you’re here, you’re going to see this exciting soccer and you’re going to come back.

You’re from Idaho, maybe you want to tap into the Basque community. Maybe you want to bring in a player from Athletic Bilbao. And you are also bringing in a different perspective. Athletic Bilbao is actually a really good example of this, they have an approach to the game and approach to being in the world. Then, maybe I’m going to bring in a young, exciting American star. Maybe we need a grown up, somebody who’s been on big stages in Europe who can help people mature.

So now you got a mix of kids coming out of the academy, you’ve got a mix of second-tier journeyman players from Latin America or Spain, and you’ve got a player like Kyle Beckerman, the senior player who plays his role. You adjust and play differently because they’re each bringing a different perspective to the game. It’s bringing the perspective, it’s bringing the ideas, but it has to be in the context of a shared set of values or a shared mission.

You have an article on your site about lessons from Pep Guardiola’s time at Bayern, I wanted to ask about a few of these and how RSL can apply them. One of the sections is titled “Build something that will outlast you”. Real Salt Lake’s best days were under Jason Kreis, but a lot of that success failed to persist. How does the new ownership group build something that lasts beyond a central coach or player?

That’s a tough question, and you see this in the private sector all the time as well with founders. They have this great idea, but then comes a time when they have to let go. So all the things that make you successful are the things that could potentially doom you.

I think it’s building a culture, surrounding yourself with people who buy into that culture, who you then empower. So if you’re not there, your number two can step up and it’s fine. You need to establish a “Way” to do things that can outlast a coach. Arsenal had the Wenger Way, and then it didn’t succeed as well, and then they were adrift because Arsenal was Wenger. It wasn’t Arsenal.

If you build something with a set of values and an approach, it will succeed. I think if it’s built from the culture of where you are, that’s even better. Again, I thought of Bilbao for all the obvious reasons. Even at RSL there’s an interesting history behind what’s going on RSL and the history of Utah itself.

The first settlers were the Spaniards, then the first American settlers were the Mormons. They landed in Salt Lake City because nobody else wanted to live there. They were chased out, and then they flourished. The first women in the US to cast votes were in Utah. They were the second to get the vote, but the first to cast votes. Then the vote was taken away. Then it came back. This is kind of Utah’s thing.

It’s a gross oversimplification but one can kind of read the allegory. RSL had a vision- here’s who we are in the community. We’re building this amazing facility in this beautiful place. You know the stories of the women’s players coming in and crying. They’re in real locker rooms, in real facilities. Then it was taken away, but now we’re going to come back.

That could become for RSL “look this is who we are in Utah. We start great, we stumble, and then we get up.”

You’ve already commented on this, but the article also stated “An organization needs a story”. Thoughts?

Looking here, I feel like D.C. United is very much part of D.C. It means a lot to people around here that Ben (Olsen) lives in Shaw. He’s not out in the ‘burbs somewhere. His kids go to public school. He plays pick up. Inter Miami is developing its own story, its own sense of identity. I think RSL has this really incredible opportunity.

You can say “we did this thing, we brought this thing that everyone thought was crazy”. Soccer in Utah? Come on. Women’s soccer in Utah? No way. It’s beautiful, it’s amazing, it works. This is who we are. The reason you’re moving to Utah is literally because nobody else wants to. Then they succeed.

Salt Lake City is a beautiful city. Utah’s a gorgeous state, with an amazing and robust history, that everybody else wrote off. Be that! You’re not going to be Inter Miami, you’re not going to be LAFC, you’re not a Hollywood team. You’re a hard-working, honest team in a beautiful place that rewards hard work and honesty.

The problem with the team at the moment is that it didn’t follow the plot of the story. It might have been hard working, but it wasn’t honest. But, like most good stories, there’s hope, loss and redemption. We had the hope, we’ve seen the loss, we’ve got to come back. And that may be the story- we are re-identifying what made not just RSL, but Utah great. People didn’t think it could happen, but we knew that through hard work, honesty, transparency, and just being good people, we’re going to make this work. And now it will.

Going back to Muller’s article, a team employee said “Dell Loy interferes on areas that he’s not an expert at but he also controls everything”. How does an organization empower and then trust their experts?

You know, everyone says they’re going to listen and get the best feedback, but we’ve all been in meetings where that just doesn’t happen. As a manager, one thing I do is ask for feedback, and then if everyone is just agreeing with me, I ask somebody to pick a fight. If everyone in a meeting agrees with me, none of those people need to be in the meeting. I could just have this conversation with myself. I need good honest feedback. Then when they do pick a fight, my first response is “thank you, let’s kick this around for a bit”. That’s one way to do it.

Another way is to publicly be seen empowering others. If I’m the CEO of a company, and you’re the IT guy, and someone comes to me and says, ‘hey we’re having problems with this’, I say ‘you know, actually so-and-so’s the expert on this, why don’t you talk to so-and-so’. You’ve got to be humble and you’ve got to be comfortable both owning your strengths, but also owning your weaknesses. That’s hard but I think the best leaders do that.

How does a club get all levels (Academy, USL, MLS, NWSL) on the same page?

I think a great example of communication again is Beckerman. He’s a vocal leader on the field and I just love watching him. I like the blue collar, crunching kind of players. Beckerman has that, and he’ll direct - “Go here, do this, you’ve got to shift” - constantly.

The game is a constant reminder of cognitive limits. You’ll think you’re smart and then you’re on a soccer field. You’re in the center circle, the ball at your feet, and 1.5 seconds to know what to do with it. You think “actually,I could use some input”. You have to have that. One of the few things I’ve liked about covid-19 games are the field mics, because you’re reminded how loud soccer fields are.

Off the field that can be more difficult, but again it comes back to the story - Here’s who we are and what we stand for. If you’re on the NWSL team, the USL team, the academy team, or the MLS team, we are this community, this is our set of values. If you behave in these ways you’re going to get a fair shot.

So if you’re in the academy, the first thing- I need you to be on time, fit, and doing everything you’re supposed to do. If you’re incredibly gifted, but you’re lazy, then go home. You need to work hard, because this is what we believe in in Utah. It’s a honey bee, right? The beehive. You’ve got to bust it every day.

The second- you got to be a good teammate. If there’s a cone on the ground at the end of practice, go pick up the cone. If one of your teammates is having a bad day, you go pick up your teammate.

Then if you excel in the academy, you get a chance at USL. We’re at least going to put you on the bench, we’re going to see what you can do. If you’re really good, we’ll bump you up to the first team. If not, you’ll get a shot in the second division, get a chance to get up to the first team. Same on the women’s side. If you reflect our values, if you embody hard work, cooperation, teamwork, and if you’re really good, you’ll get a shot. And if we know you don’t have a shot, we will help you find somewhere else to succeed, because we are invested in you as a human being. I think that also matters. but that’s tougher with a team.

You clearly articulate a set of shared values, then you train together, and you practice together. Then you go to each other’s games. Have the boys academy watch the NWSL team play. Have the women watch the USL team, and then ask for input. Have them play intrasquad scrimmages, mix it up.

Unfortunately for RSL, they’ve been saying all the right things for so many years but their actions have been the opposite. Like, “are you kidding me”, kind of stuff. You’ve got to live the values.

I feel like Beckerman does that. I feel like he embodies that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went to all the women’s games, because he thought it was cool and important to demonstrate support. You can’t just talk about it, you’ve got to live the values. Then everyone is invested in the system and you know you’re part of something bigger. You’ve got to articulate a shared set of values and mission, then you’ve got to live it.

Any last thoughts?

I think (what happened at RSL) is a betrayal of what soccer can be. Everybody romanticizes their favorite sport, and I’m the same way about soccer. At its best, soccer represents the best of who we can be.

You look at the Liverpool team the last few years under Klopp. You’ve got Mo Salah, Virgil Van dijk, players from all over the world, from all different backgrounds, and a level of enthusiasm playing for each other. They stand for something, and they stand for something bigger and better than themselves. Athletic Bilbao has poetry contests, they have book groups with their players and fans, because Athletic Bilbao isn’t just a club. They’re a symbol of the best of what the Basques can be.

This is how DC is. Bill Hamid lives by Marie Reed Elementary, Paul Arriola lives on U Street. This is DC’s team, and that means something. The Black Lives Matter stuff at Audi field, that was not a PR/marketing move. That was a player saying this matters.

Ben Olson deferred to the third-string goalkeeper (Earl Edwards Jr.) on whether or not they were going to play last weekend. Not because Ben was passing the buck, but because that goalkeeper said ‘I’m a leader in this’ and the rest of the team said okay. That’s the best of what soccer can be.

I’m optimistic that RSL can come back from this. They will remind us that who we are matters, and how we treat each other matters. Winning games is great, you’ve got to sell jerseys, and hopefully someday soon sell tickets. If you can do it in a way that represents the best of who we are, the best of what Utah stands for, and the best of what the people of Salt Lake stand for, then the team will do better.

Beckerman will retire at some point and the next person will step up, because they’ll know that’s what we do here. RSL has a chance to remind us to be the best that we can be, to own a mistake, come back from that mistake, and be that best, because we all have to do that.