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Real Salt Lake's field of dreams

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SANDY, Utah – Major League Soccer has a new crown jewel, one which emerged from the ashes of bureaucracy, frustration and civic red tape.

Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium opened its doors for the first time on Thursday night and immediately became MLS' finest venue, at least until Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., sees its first action next year.

While RSL's 1-1 draw with New York Red Bulls in front of a national television audience failed to provide the 20,008 sellout crowd with a win, the occasion was a victory in itself.

Over the past few years owner Dave Checketts and his followers refused to listen to all the reasons, many of them valid, why his organization should falter. The $110 million Rio Tinto project looked doomed to failure countless times, and the fact that RSL now is an established part of the landscape in both the MLS family and its own market is testament to Checketts' foresight, persistence and stubbornness.

The former Utah Jazz president would not give in, even when the hurdles seemed insurmountable and relocation to St. Louis appeared the most sensible option.

"We had a dinner with 78 people last night who I call the True Believers," Checketts said. "A number of times this project died, maybe 12 or 15 times, but those people kept believing in it."

The result is a picturesque venue perfect for soccer viewing, one that borrows architectural inspiration from Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium and even the Spanish Steps in Rome. It is the latest step in giving soccer a foothold in an area with nothing in the way of long-standing professional history in the sport.

Becoming the seventh MLS club to have its own stadium is not the finishing line. Obstacles remain in place. Yet with the right guidance, RSL could be at the start of something impressive.

The doubters will not go away, and they'll claim RSL always will be at a disadvantage because of its location and small market. But the chief reason MLS has encouraged soccer-specific stadium ownership is that a home breeds an aura of permanence and further acceptance into the community.

Who would have thought that in Utah there could be a soccer success story that the league could be proud of?

"This stadium was a long time in coming, and there were times when it didn't look like it was happening," MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said. "It is a little bit different in a market like this. It is not a sophisticated pre-existing soccer market, and you have to connect them with the sport.

"But now over time there is more sophistication in the crowd, and it is impressive in a short space of time."

What needs to push RSL further forward is the continuation of the ownership group's aggressive approach. The next step should be to target a designated player to add profile to the club and an extra edge to the team.

As MLS continues to grow, more and more players overseas will look to the United States as a more legitimate option. Not all of them are going to be able to live in the most desirable destinations of Los Angeles or New York – Salt Lake City might not be the most immediate choice for a foreigner looking to continue his career – but a stadium such as this and forward-looking management will help tempt solid international talent.

"Having this stadium to call home will be great for us," RSL head coach Jason Kreis said. "We want to attract good players from around the world and from the United States.

"It makes a big difference when you can offer the opportunity to play in a venue like this every other week."

The contrast between Rio Tinto and Real Salt Lake's former home, Rice-Eccles Stadium, could not be greater.

Rice-Eccles was covered in awful, aging artificial turf completely unsuitable for soccer. At Rio Tinto, there is something to be proud of and, more importantly, a site that can be used to generate additional revenue streams.

RSL got its act together with a combination of business sense, tenacity and faith in the potential of a market to adapt to a new product. Its blueprint is one for other MLS teams to follow.

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