Welcome to From The Upper Deck, my blog about RSL and soccer in general. I have a lot of passion for the beautiful game. I am just a fan that likes to sit in the upper deck and take it all in.

Friday, February 28, 2014

RSL Round Table Part 2- RSL Fans and Lower Division Teams

In part 1 of this round table discussion the panel took at look at the implementation of future PDL and USL Pro teams under the RSL umbrella. In part 2 of our discussion we discuss how the fans will react to these new teams.

Again our panel consists of myself (@ccb1212), Pat Eyler (@gnupate), Wes Brown (@wesbadia), Matt Montgomery (@TheCrossbarRSL) and James Rust (@JamesRust15).

I am very interested to see how RSL will handle these teams as far as the current fan base is concerned. If the RSL front office is smart about it (and those guys are pretty smart) they would promote these two teams to the current fan base. There are probably some fans that won't really care but I think many fans would. We have a pretty fanatic fan base that likes to know everything that is going on. Having these games (along with the reserve league) streamed would be great. It would also be great for RSL to have friendlies with these teams both home and away. Those games are good for both the fans and the players.

Giving fans awareness to the future stars of the team is only a good thing. Lets use Jordan Allen as an example. I am extremely excited for this upcoming season to see how he does. Why is that? It is because I have already seen him play in reserve games and he blew me away. But if you ask the majority of RSL fans, they probably have no idea who he is. By giving exposure to both the PDL and USL Pro teams, fans will get to see these young kids ahead of time. And by the time these kids reach the main team, there will be a greater excitement from the fans to see them play. They will already have a connection with these players. Right now I have no connection with Ryan Neil. I have never seen him play. But I do have a connection with Jordan Allen.  

I think this is a huge point.  I try pretty hard to track the academy, but there's only so much information available.  If RSL can get more content online about the various teams in the development pipeline, I think that would be a huge win for the team and for the fans.  I might not travel to San Diego, Ogden, or Casa Grande very often, but I'll certainly take some time to watch streamed/archived games, interviews, and the like.  It would be really cool to see a recurring spot on "On Frame" that track developing players.

Very good thoughts on the effects of these moves with the fan base. I like what Charles said about not feeling a connection to Ryan Neil, but having seen Jordan Allen play he feels more excited about the kid's potential with the first team.

On this topic (and relating it back to the placement of USL Pro/PDL teams in certain markets), I believe it's important to establish these teams in areas that both take advantage of the existing influence of RSL in those areas (demand for the product), but also in areas that most identify with the product that's being offered (club culture vs market culture). Charles' comment about Boise being demographically and culturally similar to SLC is a great reason for it to be a solid option for being brought under the club umbrella. San Diego? Beyond the competitive challenges I've mentioned before, how does RSL's SLC fan base identify with a market like San Diego? Conversely, how does the market receive a product that has aspects of culture that they might not identify with in all regards? Some things like "The Team is the Star" is easy to get on board with. It makes sense. Same for the style of game we play. But (and this is a touchy subject, so I tread on eggshells here), as a non-LDS who grew up in a state with little LDS presence, I know the stigma that many people outside of Utah have adopted regarding both the LDS church or anything regarding the state of Utah in general. The openness in SoCal might be such that it makes for an easy translation, and indeed San Diego adopting RSL's philosophy and ownership models is more likely to happen than RSL fans (whatever stripe they are) to adopt an area of the country just because the Real name is associated with the team. How have CD Guadalajara fans adopted Chivas USA? Or Man City adopted the club's efforts in NYC? I see the translation this way as a major challenge if the product the club is offering is to remain consolidated and branded in a way that has a true "club" feel to it, i.e., contiguous in nature.

How fans respond to these happenings is, IMO, going to be largely based on how they identify with the markets they're offered in. Pat:  would you be more willing to travel to SD or Boise to see a D3 game? I pose that question to any RSL fan looking to see more of their club's talent. Personally, it's a much easier sell for me to go to Boise (a place that is culturally similar to the area I live) than to SD (which, honestly, is a little intimidating, even for someone who grew up in the hustle and bustle of the east coast). I'm not a native of Utah, nor am I LDS, so I cannot comment with any authority on how those parts of the RSL fan base will respond to a team located in SD. But my speculation is that more of a connection to the lower tiers of the club would be made by fans if they were given an outlet that they can identify with.

Well I can’t speak for anyone else, but I probably wouldn’t go to San Diego just to catch a D3 game.  If I were there for some other reason, I’d love to catch a game while I was there.  I might even arrange a trip there to make catching a game easier.  Boise would be easier to make a trip to, but I’m less likely to travel there for business, so I’m probably less likely to see a D3 game there.

On a micro level, I'd want to be able to see my club's talent as they rise through the levels. That's one reason why I think creating an SLC academy is important to the future of the organization. Like Pat said, it's hard enough keeping tabs on things in AZ with the academy. Having that closer to home is going to make those young players so much more accessible to fans. I, for one, would be willing to attend the USSDA games to see the development of our youth if it was closer to home. Same goes for PDL. Ogden (or even Provo) is not far for anyone in northern Utah to commute to see our players play. A 40 min drive north or south is minuscule. As an aside, it'd go a long way to uniting the region more under the banner of RSL. Again, I may be odd man out, but I certainly don't mind making that commute for a team I love. And, as an Ogdenite, I can attest to the arm’s length distance Salt Lakers seem to keep us. Uniting the various cities could go a long way to growing the brand as a whole and the larger cultural connectedness of the region.

In the end, having these teams close enough to offer players easy transition between each but far enough away in order to capitalize on newer markets is going the be the trickiest challenge for the club. Existing fans should be able to adopt these new teams as their own. But I see challenges for them as well especially if they're in areas that make it difficult to "keep tabs on", just like RSL-AZ. It creates a disconnect in the progression of talent through the whole club, and I see that as potentially damaging in the long run to both fans and club alike. Provided local, existing fans get the taste of younger academy players early, I believe those fans will follow those players regardless of where they end up (college, another MLS team, an international club). It is just like how RSL fans will still follow where Kreis is and how he's doing with NYCFC. But creating the opportunities for fans to see those players early, and making it as accessible as possible is going to be the determining factor. The more players given these opportunities closer to "home", the more fan support they'll receive as they progress their careers.

It's hard to disagree with most of what's been said — careers, homes, a clear line of development — in providing a clear delineation of development through the establishment of USL Pro and PDL sides. Whether Salt Lake City would actively support it is something worth considering, and whether something of that nature might fare better in one of our neighbors 40 minutes in either direction is difficulty to say definitively.

From a purely selfish perspective, I'd like to watch more soccer, and I'm certain I'm not the only one. But the baseline on which we have to draw doesn't lend us much in the way of evidence — we've had fair crowds for some reserves outings, but never at enough strength as to seem self-sustaining. Importantly, though, we're in a state of transition (when aren't we, though?) and as we fill up Rio Tinto Stadium week after week, we might find the desire for either more soccer — or at least more opportunities for soccer — to be palpable. Would it be enough to keep a small club moving here? I hope so.

I think a lot of great points have been made already and it is very clear as to the importance of being involved with a PDL and USL Pro team. Young players simply don't get the opportunity for game reps during the season to sharpen their skills quick enough to make it big time. I agree with the concept of positioning these lower level teams in areas where RSL fans can track what's happening and develop an interest in the up and comers. The second string quarterback is always a popular guy among fans and so would be the case for these young players who fans would already have an idea of because of exposure at the lower levels. Just like the Jordan Allen example given.

One question that comes to mind, and I am not sure I have the answer for it, is cost? What kind of expenses are going to be associated with being involved with a PDL and USL Pro Team? Dell Loy Hansen is a business man, not a sports man. He is in this to make money and that is the bottom line, even at the expense of winning. We saw how things were carried out with Jason's contract and I am afraid we will see the same at the end of this season with Garth. San Diego has been mentioned as a questionable destination. I agree with the concerns there and also agree that Ogden, Boise along with others would be better options. It's complete speculation but Dell Loy owns a home along with many businesses and real estate in San Diego. That might be the reason for it being a candidate. Don't know, but thought I'd throw it out there.

To be honest I don’t think I would travel to either San Diego or Boise for the sole purpose seeing one of these teams. But like Matt I would like to watch more soccer. I think it is vital that wherever these teams are located that their games would be streamed on the main RSL website. The team needs to give the fans an easy way to see these matches and to see these players.

Can a team be supported enough here in the valley? I think that it probably could. It really could be a way to build the soccer culture here in Utah even more. In the early years of RSL they used to give many tickets away. They did this just to build the fan base. If RSL had a PDL team here they could have very inexpensive tickets. Then they could open it up to things like the Pass of All Passes to drive up attendance even more. And other things like radio promotions could get more people in the stands. By doing this you are going to get more people to go check out a soccer match. And my guess is that some of those people will turn around and buy tickets to an RSL match. These things would get more people in the stands to go along with all the RSL faithful that would probably also attend.

To go along with James’ point, by having a team here the overhead would be low. They could play their matches at Rio Tinto and also use the practice field. That would save a lot of the costs that a team located elsewhere would have. It is an interesting thought and I am very curious to see what direction the team takes.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

RSL Round Table- RSL's Future with USL Pro and PDL

Today we are unveiling something new here at From the Upper Deck. Today marks the first in a series of round table discussions featuring various people in the RSL community. We will take topics of interest and discuss among ourselves how that topic will effect RSL. Hopefully you will find our conversations as interesting as I do.

There has been a lot of talk recently about RSL starting up PDL and USL Pro teams to provide development environments for RSL's homegrown players from the academy as well as other younger RSL players. It looks like this will be unfolding over the next 2-3 years. The question is: What will be the biggest impact to RSL, and how will the fans be able to see and measure the value these programs will provide to the club?

With this in mind I gathered some people to discuss this topic. To go along with myself we have Pat Eyler (@gnupate). Pat writes for From the Upper Deck specializing on all things with the RSL academy. Next is Wes Brown (@wesbadia). Wes writes for Soccer Newsday and also contributes to RSL Soapbox. Matt Montgomery (@TheCrossbarRSL) who is the manager and main writer for RSL Soapbox and James Rust (@JamesRust15) who was the former host of both On Frame and the RSL pre/post game shows joins the panel for part 2 of this series.

Today we talk about the USL Pro and PDL teams for RSL and part 2 looks more at how the fans will react to these new teams. (For an explanation about the USL Pro and PDL leagues, see here)

I think the implementation of a PDL and USL Pro teams will be vital to the future of RSL. Garth has already said that RSL is the type of club that will grow more internally through their academy than they will by bringing in big name players. The academy appears to be doing great things and we are starting to see the fruits of their labors. But the step up between the academy and RSL is a huge one. It will be so beneficial to have a level or two between the academy and the main club for these players to continue to get playing time and continue to grow.

Take for instance Benji Lopez. He was signed last year out of the academy but didn't see any playing time with the first team. That leaves the reserve league as the only place that he can gain experience. A player like Lopez needs more playing time than just that. In the past, RSL has loaned out players for short stretches of time which is good. But it would better for these young players to be playing in the same type of formations that the first team plays in. That way a player can move from the academy, to PDL/USL Pro to RSL and not have to learn a new system. By the time they reach the big club they would have been playing in the same formation for years and will be well accustomed to what is expected of them.

To build off what Charles is saying, it's obvious that expanding throughout the pyramid for the club is vital to the growth of homegrown talent. And the example Charles gave about Lopez is a great one because it focuses on a player that is young with a bright future ahead, but also old enough to start contributing to the club in a tangible way. But at 19 (his birthday was Feb 16), the likelihood of him featuring with the first team is extremely slim. There's the example of Carlos Salcedo at 19 making contributions last year, but I see that as an exception rather than the rule.

For this reason, I see the importance of creating first a PDL level team. The odds are that the academy will produce more talent annually than will be brought in through any other means (draft, trades, etc). Building from the ground up is crucial to giving an outlet to these younger guys because without it they'll have three undesirable options:  1) stagnate on the bench of the first team while competing for time with established vets; 2) go off to college, enter the MLS draft process, and possibly be picked up by one of our rivals; or 3) after signing with RSL and not seeing valuable minutes, start seeking other clubs to play for instead. The first is a waste of resources as there are no fruits being grown; the second is mis-allocation of resources as investment is diverted into essentially developing players for your rivals; while the third is the most desirable of the three because you at least get a return on investment, albeit for a player developed in a specific system which could see a smaller pool of suitors step up.

With the PDL essentially playing in the U-23 age group, having players from the academy that are freshly signed step right into the PDL team would be a seamless way of integrating them into the full RSL "pyramid". It'd also allow them to "play up" a level; ie 18-21 yo's playing against U-23's, and our U-23's playing against D3 veterans. Again, with the academy producing faster than other means, PDL first makes sense. The second team (reserves) can have a bit more time in the status quo until a USL Pro team is developed, but ultimately this is ideal too... of course.

While I agree with your logic, I'm not sure that RSL has a choice. MLS has set a 2015 deadline for USL Pro affiliation or team formation. Perhaps RSL can affiliate during 2015 (though they have avoided that so far) and then stand up the USL Pro team the following year, but making guesses about how MLS will interpret/enforce/modify rules is a chancy business.

Two more pieces of the puzzle are:
How RSL can "tag" players in the PDL system?  This will be important not just to protect players from other MLS teams, but also to protect the investment in Academy players who might sign overseas (e.g., Brooks Lennon seeing interest from Liverpool).
How many of the RSL development players will be ready to opt out of college/PDL/U-23 play early? Justen Glad seems like he could be one, Corey Baird is another. I think we'll see a number of those players signed to a USL Pro contract or an MLS contract and being loaned down to the USL Pro side.

You're absolutely right about the club not having much of a choice in getting the USL Pro team off the ground at the same time as PDL. I think it's rather clear that management/ownership is unwilling to affiliate with a team now just to break that affiliation later to do things "right" by creating their own team. That necessitates the club's creation of a D3 team for 2015, just in time for the deadline. My comment was more in regards to the status of the other clubs in the league as far as PDL teams go. Only a handful of MLS teams have effective U-23 squads in existence right now (PDL or NPSL). It doesn't make sense for RSL to wait on creating one,
and, in my mind, being forced to either affiliate with or create their own D3 squad by 2015 also necessitates the creation of a PDL team as well. Making it a full ladder (that's not missing any rungs) is crucial to moving RSL's academy products up the pyramid as they develop.

My article for Soccer Newsday the other week praised the club for thinking along the lines of filling in the pyramid, but I have concerns about their ideas of how to execute these moves. With talk of San Diego as a possible home for the USL Pro squad, I question if this is the best idea. I understand the wanting to go after a large potential pool of players by focusing on SoCal, but are there better markets that exist? San Diego is largely Xolos country now, and those that don't sign for Tijuana end up being scraped up by the Galaxy system. Not to mention the four NPSL (National Premiere Soccer League) franchises currently in the area. 

I'd like to know what other markets have been looked at... and which ones in the region haven't. Charles and I have talked privately about the idea of scooping up more of the mountain region market by possibly looking at places like Boise which could theoretically support a division 3 club. Getting to a city like that before the likes of Portland or Seattle might be a good investment down the road, especially as we factor in growth factors (top 10 in fastest growing US cities).

Finally, talks of putting the PDL team simply in SLC might be another misstep inside a market the club already controls. Would the PDL club attract non-RSL fans in the SLC market, i.e. expand the footprint of the organization? Or would a closer town suit better? Some have mentioned Provo (another very high growth rate cities), but you'd be contending with BYU's PDL program. Additionally, Ogden lost its PDL team last season, but from what I understand that was more of an issue with ownership than attendance or quality. Ogden is right behind Provo in growth factors, and they also have a potential venue in Lindquist Field which is in a downtown setting.

In summary, what the club is doing deserves to be praised, especially focusing on the PDL first. But my chief concern is with the markets they're looking to get into with these new teams.

I'm not sure that the assumption a So-Cal USL Pro team will help funnel players into RSL's development pipeline is valid.  I haven't seen anything from MLS about expanding the development/homegrown regions, and I think that would throw the system out of balance as wealthier teams decide to plop down USL Pro teams in under-recruited regions.

I agree that trying to expand the local base makes sense from a marketing perspective though.  If you work from Boise to Casa Grande and look for potential locations, there are a few PDL and USL Pro options.  Of course, you have to think about cost too, but if the team is willing to start something in San Diego, you've got to think that's not as much of a factor.  I think you could make a case for Boise, Ogden, and maybe Phoenix (if the existing USL Pro ownership there folds again) at the USL Pro level.  Any of those plus Flagstaff or SLC make sense for PDL too.

I include SLC because I think the PDL team is a lot less about growing the fan base and a lot more about getting the college and older academy players more time together and more immersion in the RSL way. If they're near Rio Tinto, they could step right into practice with the full team whenever it made sense.

Along similar lines, I think San Diego makes less sense because of the difficulty in bringing the USL Pro and MLS teams together for practices, scrimmages, and other interaction.

Given my druthers, I'd like to see Ogden (or Boise as a second choice) for USL Pro and SLC (or Phoenix/Flagstaff) for the PDL.

Both Pat and Wes made some great points. The more I think about it the more it makes sense that the PDL should be in Ogden. I am not sure if the PDL team really will have much of an affect on building the brand of RSL itself. But if you could build a fan base up in Ogden for the team then they would be probably more willing to travel to the Riot to watch players they have followed previously on their PDL team. Also Ogden is close enough for RSL junkies like myself to on occasion travel to Ogden to watch a match as well.

I do think that having a PDL team close to the main team would be very beneficial. How great would it be for the players on the PDL team to be able to train on occasion with the first team? And it would allow the coaching staff to keep a close eye on the players right out of the academy.

The USL Pro team is a little bit different in my mind. With the team being in a higher league I do think it would be beneficial to place this team in a larger area farther away from Salt Lake. Pat and Wes mentioned it already but I have always thought that Boise would be a great spot. The demographics between SLC and Boise are very similar. I really think that a team would do well there.  It is still close enough to shuttle players back and forth without much problem and I think the RSL brand could really grow. But all indications seems to be that the team will be in San Diego. It will be interesting if we could build the RSL brand in Southern California.

Friday, February 7, 2014

RSL Family- Kyle Beckerman & Bill Riley

By Charles Barnard

Today marks the 100th blog post for From the Upper Deck. I think it is only fitting that the 100th post marks the return of my series looking at the RSL Family. This series is probably the one that is my personal favorite on the blog.

When I had the idea to write about the family aspect of the team the thought was that it would be just one article. I would get a couple of quotes from various people, combine it all together and that would be that. It still surprises me how far away from that original idea this series has grown. I just love to hear what the RSL Family means to people. From players, to fans, to coaches, I have really learned how special this family is.

One person that I have always wanted to hear from was team captain Kyle Beckerman. He has been the face of the team since his arrival almost eight years ago. I figured that if there was one person that would have some opinions about the RSL Family, it would be him.

I had the great opportunity to talk with Kyle at RSL media day. I asked him the same question that I had asked everyone else up to this point. What does the RSL Family mean to you?

It is not just a business. I think that is different than a lot of teams. It feels like we are all in this together. We are all fighting for soccer in Utah. To make a statement throughout the country that we are different. We play good soccer out here. This is who we are. I think we are all in this fight together in a way. When you are fighting for something, it brings you together as a family. It seems like we are embracing the fans and everybody.

For me, to play for that type of team, that is what I love to play for. That is what I like to fight for. That is the passion that I have inside me. It is pretty cool that I get to play here. I think that is why so many guys have been here for so long, because we all enjoy it.

I then asked him if he felt we had something unique with the RSL Family.

Absolutely, we totally do. I don't know why it is that way here but it is and we are pretty lucky. 

At media day I also had the chance to speak with Bill Riley. Riley has been with the team doing play-by-play from the very beginning. Having seen so many highs and lows with RSL, I thought I would get his perspective as well. Again, I asked him what the RSL family meant to him.

I guess I am technically part of the family since I have been here since the beginning. I guess it means great support. I think our group of fans are as much invested in this team as any group of fans. Other places may have bigger crowds and things like that but I don't think there is a group of fans that are as invested as our fans are in the day in and day out stuff. They want to know what is going on in training. They want to know what the line up is going to be. They want to know who is out there in the transfer window. They want to know what events are coming up.

It is a tight knit group. I think our group of players and front office and organization probably do as good a job as anyone in the league of making the fans feel like they are a part of the family.

I just wanted to thank Kyle and Bill for giving me a few moments of their time. I found both their comments fascinating. I loved hearing Kyle's remarks about how he loves to play here. I think that many sporting fans in Utah worry about sports athletes not wanting to play in Utah. The Jazz have had to deal with that for a long time. That doesn't seem to be a problem with this team, and it seems like the family aspect has a big part to play in that.

I also was very interested in what Bill had to say about the fans. We see fan bases like Seattle and Portland and wonder how we compare. Everyone can see that we are different than those fan bases, but that is not a bad thing. And I love how hard the organization works at making us feel a part of the family.

We have something unique here. And I agree with Kyle that we are pretty lucky because of it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

2015 Expansion Protection List- Preseason 2014

By Charles Barnard

Last week I wrote about my idea for creating an expansion draft protection list that could be revisited a couple of times over the course of this upcoming year. The idea behind it was that it would be fun to see who fans would protect today and to see how that list might change between now and next year's expansion draft. A survey was created and I asked for readers to tell who they would protect if they could protect 11 players.

Today I am going to reveal the results of the survey along with my own list of who I protected. But first I wanted to let you know a little bit about my own philosophy when it comes to expansion drafts. For the protection list, you shouldn't protect your best 11 players. What is more important is that you protect players that you think the expansion team might select. A lot of the time this does correspond with your best 11, but not always.

Below are the top 11 players that were included on the most ballots. Next to the player is the percentage of ballots they were included on. I do find it interesting that there were only 3 players that made everybody's protection lists.

- Kyle Beckerman (100%)
- Tony Beltran (100%)
- Chris Schuler (100%)
- Nick Rimando (95%)
- Luis Gil (95%)
- Sebastian Velasquez (91%)
- Olmes Garcia (87%)
- Javier Morales (79%)
- Alvaro Saborio (70%)
- Carlos Salcedo (66%)
- Joao Plata (50%)

Those falling just short of being protected were Sandoval (38%), Findley (33%), and Borchers (33%)

I have to be honest in saying that I was surprised by the results above. I thought more votes would go to players that are seen more in the starting lineup (i.e. Borchers, Wingert, Grabavoy).

My protected list is almost exactly the same as the protected list above. The only difference was that I protected Sandoval and did not protect Morales. Morales is amazing. In my mind he was RSL's MVP last season and should have been in consideration for league MVP. The only reason I didn't protect him was his age. At the start of the 2015 season, Morales will be 35 years old. I can't see an expansion team using a pick on a midfield player that old.

That did leave me protecting four forwards which does seem like a lot, but at this time I am not sure who I would rather protect.

I am very curious to see if any of the other younger players on our roster can play well enough to work their way onto my protection list. I will probably revisit this a couple times through the course of the season and then have a final look after the season concludes.

I do want to give special thanks to Arthur Felter for his help setting up the survey on the site.