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The Salt: The 18-month windstorm

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Despite efforts to the contrary, it appears the worst is over for Real Salt Lake.

Seattle Sounders FC v Real Salt Lake Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

If you’re outside the Wasatch Front, you may not have experienced yesterday’s heavy wind storms. In that case, consider yourself lucky. I, myself, consider myself lucky for only have a bunch of large branches from old trees filling my backyard — everyone is safe, and our home is (hopefully) undamaged.

The garden, though, has fared a little worse for wear, but I suppose the coming of fall was always going to have some negative effects on it, though I don’t think I’d have expected this.

Still, while writing this and listening to something to calm the nerves a bit (Brian Eno’s Apollo, which actually might not be calming my nerves, but it’s really good, so I guess I’ll deal with it), I can see large branches detached from trees on my neighbor’s roof, and there are plenty which I’ve yet to clear, owing to a desire to avoid being outside in all this. (If it isn’t clear, I’m writing this on Tuesday. The sun has just peeked into my office for the first time all day.)

All this brings to mind the chaos of covering Real Salt Lake over the last 13-and-a-half months. The world, of course, has not made anything easy for anyone, what with a global pandemic, but I think it’s worth talking through some of the points which have punctuated this unusual time for a professional sports organization.

The Mike Petke firing

July 24, 2019. Pioneer Day. Also, Real Salt Lake’s first entry into the Leagues Cup, a markedly artificial competition which was only a slightly elevated friendly.

It was not a match that mattered, really. We were playing Tigres. There was very little chance we’d win — but we were looking competent, and even late, we had chances. It was very encouraging, really, and I was surprised.

Then, a cat.

I mean, really. Can you believe that all this chaos started with a domesticated animal? Perhaps it was only a matter of time before something happened, given reports and rumors about Petke’s behavior at the club. But this was the tipping point. A cat ran on the pitch, the referee didn’t stop play, Tigres scored.

And then Mike Petke came unhinged. We don’t need to relitigate what he said, the impact of what he said, or why he said it. But it is fair to say that he behaved extremely poorly, and he was suspended by RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen.

That suspension was rumored to be a permanent one (in that it would lead to a firing), and it was als rumored to be a temporary one. It was hard to gauge the situation, and Hansen’s opinion seemed to shift with the winds. (Ah, there it is.) But not long after, he was recorded in a public interaction with a fan.

Our point is we’re weighing it, but at the end, once it’s all in, it still comes down to our values.

The months of back-and-forth, litigation, and publicly documented bad actions across the board felt like it was the start of the chaos — but I might argue it actually started in earnest a little bit earlier than that.

Rewind just a bit here

So I might have been a little premature here. Let’s go back to May 2019, when RSL’s chief business officer Andy Carroll scythed the broadcast budget for Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals. I wrote about it then, but the reporting at the time was done by Salt Lake Tribune’s Alex Vejar.

A quote from Carroll at the time:

“We are small market,” Carroll said. “We have to run as efficiently and as effectively as we can. And we would rather allocate the resources that we have to players so that we can be more competitive and make the playoffs. It’s really that simple.”

My take on that — and I will stand by it — was not a positive one, and I still think reducing the investment in broadcasts hurt the team more than it helped. The argument was that those resources would be allocated to players. If that was the case, it didn’t happen in 2019, as the only player we brought into the organization after that point was Kelyn Rowe, whose budget impact would have been negligible at best, owing to the single-entity structure of the league.

It was a statement that, to many of us, signalled the club’s true intentions: Not to be the best in the league, or to compete with the best in the league, but to “make the playoffs.”

That edition of The Salt I wrote in May didn’t set well with Carroll, who asked to meet with me at the time to “clear things up.” It was an off-the-record meeting, so I won’t share details from it (not that there was anything particularly juicy to speak of), but I can definitively say that while things were cleared up, I did not leave that discussion feeling better about the position of Real Salt Lake.

Even today, I think there is significant value in not looking ‘cheap.’ Real Salt Lake’s broadcast team has long been one of the best in Major League Soccer, and devaluing that effort to balance the books in the middle of a season was painful.

Of course, Real Salt Lake fans still had a broadcast.

That same article details that Utah Royals matches were no longer going to be broadcast at home. This came after Dell Loy Hansen spent the better part of 18 months claiming that he wanted ‘equality’ in the treatment of the two teams, and while he did good things in providing a better working environment for the players, it was clear that fans were being given short shrift.

It’s the sort of move that really signalled where Real Salt Lake as an organization was going. It is telling that contextually to all of this was Andy Williams’ scouting efforts being undermined repeatedly by Dell Loy Hansen, who demanded to see video of players before they could be signed. It was also Hansen who is said to have blocked the transfer of Krzysztof Piątek, whose transfer value skyrocketed after signing with Italian side Genoa instead. We missed out on a player with fantastic goalscoring potential, arguably because Hansen thought he was not a good fit.

That, of course, is just context. The two are probably not directly related — but it underscores the fact that the organization was being run poorly and chaotically.

Furloughs

There was relative calm to start 2020, which felt nice. We had a coach in place in Freddy Juarez, who, while likely the cheapest option on the table, had showed some great early potential. I would argue he still does.

Wait. Let’s back up again.

Jason Kreis

OK, so I was wrong. The furloughs weren’t the next thing. In October 2019, Jason Kreis was in the running for a high-level role at Real Salt Lake, potentially as coach and general manager. It made sense in some ways, even if we all had our doubts that he could work with Dell Loy Hansen again. After all, the fallout there was significant in 2013, when he was reportedly offered a piddling amount of money to re-sign with the club, then walked to New York City FC.

Now, I don’t want to talk about whether it would have been a good move or a bad move. There are two reasons why: First, it makes no difference, because it didn’t happen. It’s fun to speculate on things that could happen, but it would make anyone unhappy to speculate on things that could have been. It simply isn’t a great way to live one’s life. Second, I think it’s inconsequential to the argument here.

It seems that Kreis was not ready to work with Hansen again. Everything I’ve heard indicates that, and knowing what we know now about Hansen’s very explicit meddling in Real Salt Lake’s on-field affairs, it’s hard to divorce myself from the idea that Kreis demanded control if he were to be hired, and Hansen couldn’t accept it.

Anyway, that’s October. And November. This was basically a month-long affair, with lots of “will he, won’t he” discussion.

Back to furloughs

Obviously Dell Loy Hansen is not responsible for COVID-19. (Although if he was, that would be some twist, wouldn’t it?) But he is responsible for the treatment of his employees, and when a huge portion of his employees were furloughed, many negative feelings came with it. The manner in which it was done was problematic (ominously named meetings, for one), and the fact that he used furloughed employees as attempted leverage with players on strike (and we’ll get to that) speaks volumes.

Problematically, it seems there were still people at the organization on reduced salaries until they were restored by interim Utah Soccer president John Kimball, and that some of those people were still working extra hours — in part because others were furloughed.

Obviously there will be some differences of opinion as we discuss furloughs, but I think it’s important to note: A billionaire running a sports organization should be compassionate with his employees, and I do not think the manner in which this was all conducted was compassionate. My opinion on furloughs and billionaires? Let’s just say that I think they are bad across the board.

Fans in seats

Despite COVID-19 numbers not having really decreased meaningfully in some time, Hansen spearheaded an effort to get fans in stadiums. It was not a move I sympathized with, particularly, as the risk of spread can be significant if things don’t go smoothly. While no spread has been reported from instances of limited amounts of fans at Rio Tinto Stadium, it certainly has been controversial.

MLS players strike, Hansen outed, Hansen ousted

You’ve probably read about this, but if you haven’t, there’s a lot of coverage on this. When Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles FC players refused to play a match some two weeks ago, Dell Loy Hansen was furious — as Andy Carroll, who was reported recently to have expressed his distaste for the Black Lives Matter movement, and who was dismissive of the Black community in Utah because they make up a small percentage of the population — and that’s really where the windstorm picked up.

Reports of sexist and racist behavior from Hansen and Carroll came out rapidly, and both tooks leaves of absence. While I have compared the release of all of this information to a windstorm, it must be said that the good people in the organization who have been harmed by such behavior did not deserve to deal with this for any amount of time. It is important to not dismiss the importance of their voices and concerns.

Every precursor to this — and, of course, it goes back much further than 18 months — came to a head, and response to Hansen’s continued ownership was swift. We are now in a position where he is selling the club, and while it isn’t finished quite yet, it does look like the wind has slowed.

Where are we now?

Real Salt Lake, right now, is an organization with trees ripped from their roots ,branches strewn everywhere, and untold damage. But the storm appears to be over, and we can take some deep breaths. There will be more damage that we discover over time, and it will resurface many bad feelings. But for now, Real Salt Lake’s future has brightened. The sun is peeking through the clouds.