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SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been 10 years since a team in Utah won a professional championship.
On Wednesday night, Real Salt Lake honored the last team to bring the Beehive State a title: the 2009 Real Salt Lake team. Only two players from that team remain on the current RSL squad: Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando.
Ten years later, RSL (and the state of Utah) is searching for another title, and there is one player who will likely be the catalyst that could lead them to MLS Cup: Jefferson Savarino.
When the forward from Maracaibo, Venezuela, came to the United States in 2017, RSL knew they were getting a player who could not only score goals but, more importantly, create plays for others on the pitch. In 2017 at Zulia FC, the Venezuelan club he was at before being loaned out to RSL later that year, Savarino scored 22 goals and had 12 assists.
While he’s not the biggest of players at 5-foot-7, and certainly not the most experienced player at 22 years old, Savarino has the two most important things a forward needs: playmaking abilities and mental toughness.
As RSL makes another run toward the playoffs, it will be the likes of Savarino, Sebastian Saucedo, and others to help make the goal-scoring plays. And if RSL wants to continue making playoff runs — and hopefully title runs — the club needs to keep Savarino at all costs.
In June, rumors surfaced that English Premier League clubs Newcastle United and West Ham United were interested in acquiring the Venezuelan, who was then valued at $7.5 million in the transfer market.
While trading Savarino for that amount, or anything close to that amount, would be an amazing profit for Real Salt Lake, the loss of a creative forward like Savarino could take years to replace.
If you follow RSL, you’ve noticed how many goal-scoring opportunities have been initiated by Savarino. He’s one of the few players on the team that doesn’t need another player to set up a play; Savarino can create on his own.
He’s not Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe or even Neymar, but Savarino is the best young players RSL has had in years. For RSL to win another MLS Cup, they have to stave off bidders and lock down Savarino.
RSL and the state of Utah will never have the pull that Los Angeles, New York or even Atlanta has as far as market value. That’s OK, and, quite frankly, it’s not even that important. Sure, RSL may never end up getting a big name (albeit past their prime) like Inter Miami is reportedly close to getting David Silva. It’s all about the team, not the star.
More on RSL and Savarino:
Big markets and big stars don’t equal titles. But what does help get titles is having playmakers who can make their teammates better, and that’s what Savarino does. Finding players like him is always a struggle for teams in soccer. If Savarino is ever traded, it would take RSL some time to find his equal.
As someone who covered FC Barcelona for major sports outlets for several years, I can tell you that I see a bit of Andres Iniesta in Savarino. I’m not saying he’s exactly like “Don Andres,” but the way Savarino cuts zig-zags through defenders with elegance, the way he reads what is happening on the pitch, and the way he can score goals to match his ability to create goals for others is a bit reminiscent of Iniesta and what he did for Barca.
Savarino can be the Iniesta of Real Salt Lake for many years to come. And like the Spaniard did for Barcelona, he can help bring titles to Utah. It'll take RSL keeping and developing other players, as well as figuring out who will be the manager for next season, but having a young playmaker helps separate a good team from a title-contending team, and RSL has that in Savarino.
Two years ago, I interviewed Savarino when he first arrived in Salt Lake City. He mentioned that goals and/or assist were not his priority.
“I haven’t achieved success here yet,” Savarino said in 2017. “I’m someone who focuses on the day-to-day work and gives my best every match.”
After nearly two full seasons, it’s clear Savarino has not only given his best, but has also achieved success as a playmaker and led RSL in the attack. Even though it’s not the most important thing to him, Savarino has scored plenty of goals and grabbed assists at critical times in matches.
He wanted to give his best each match when he arrived in Utah, and Savarino is continuing to do that.
The bottom line: Real Salt Lake’s future success needs to feature Savarino. This is a business, but it’d be bad business to sell Savarino and hit the reset button on finding another young playmaker that a Los Angeles or New York club wouldn’t have poached up first.
It’s not about having superstars; it’s about having playmakers and building around them with other hardworking “role” players. Savarino may not be a superstar, but in a few years he may end up being a key reason RSL earns a second star above the crest and gives Utah its first title since that magical 2009 RSL squad — unless the Jazz or Royals FC do it first!
Xoel Càrdenas is the Breaking News Editor at KSL.com. He co-hosts KSL Cafecito, the podcast that talks all things culture.