SANDY — As Major League Soccer prepares to open its 26th season this week unlike any other prior season — on the heels of a global pandemic that threatened much of the league's infrastructure through the 2020 calendar year — MLS commissioner Don Garber is bullish on prospects of the future.
That includes the league's future in Salt Lake City.
Real Salt Lake is currently under league control, a property seized by MLS after previous owner Dell Loy Hansen announced his intent to sell the club following controversial comments made about racial inequality and the social justice movement last year. The club is currently under the direction of interim president John Kimball, a longtime sports executive who worked with the Utah Jazz and was one of the initial hires when Dave Checketts brought an MLS club to his hometown back in 2004.
Real Salt Lake will be idle during MLS's opening weekend, a product of an odd number of teams in season No. 26 of the league, and will open the season Saturday, April 24 at Minnesota United FC. RSL's home opener is scheduled for Saturday, May 1 against rival Sporting Kansas City (12 p.m. MDT, KMYU).
So the product isn't going anywhere any time soon. And Garber, like he mentioned several months ago when the league took over operations of RSL, doesn't envision a future of Real Salt Lake without the "Salt Lake" part.
"In Salt Lake, we've been working hard with local investors and there has been a lot of momentum and activity there to see who might come together to try to purchase that team," Garber said during a conference call with reporters ahead of the league's kickoff to the season. "All that being said, the team is in great hands. We have a terrific person in John Kimball running that club and reporting to the league office.
"I'm optimistic. Great market, great brand, two terrific facilities in the training ground and Rio Tinto. I'm very optimistic at what will come to fruition, hopefully by the end of the year, in Salt Lake."
Among the local investors previously linked to a purchase of RSL are Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith, who recently bought the Utah Jazz; and the Miller family that recently sold the Jazz to Smith and continue to operate a range of businesses across the greater Salt Lake area; among others.
The organization that also includes second-division development side Real Monarchs recently lost the women's club in Utah Royals FC to a group of investors in Kansas City.
Garber's pseudo state-of-the-league address focused on momentum, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic forced a "pause" in momentum of the rapidly expanding league that will welcome Austin FC as its 27th team this season. Charlotte FC and St. Louis are also expected to join MLS in 2022 and 2023, respectively, and the league is actively looking for new expansion partners — even as Sacramento recently hit the brakes on promoting its second-division Sacramento Republic FC to the top flight of U.S. Soccer.
Expansion in Sacramento is not dead, Garber was quick to mention — but the longtime MLS commissioner added the "COVID casualty" of Sacramento businessman Ron Burkle's bid has forced their western-based expansion efforts to several other cities, naming specifically San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas as potential sites for the team's 30th franchise.
That's also good news for RSL fans, who have seen rumors fly about a relocation of the franchise — potentially to Las Vegas and Phoenix. First-division soccer could be in those cities' futures, but as of this moment, it won't come through the relocation of Real Salt Lake.
"The story in MLS has always been about momentum," Garber said. "More teams, more stadiums, more fans, more players, and players that are representing all the exciting activity that takes place on the field. We had that momentum going into last year, and clearly it got put on pause by the pandemic.
"Now that momentum is kicked back."