This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Oceanside, Calif. • On the bus ride back from Real Salt Lake's preseason friendly against Club Tijuana, Jeff Cassar stood up and called for the attention of his players. RSL's head coach informed the team that one of the staples of the club's success was headed back.
RSL on Tuesday reacquired former defender Chris Wingert, who spent eight seasons with the franchise before being drafted by New York City FC in the 2014 MLS Expansion Draft. On Jan. 30, the 33-year-old defender was placed on waivers by NYCFC after just one season.
Four days later, RSL leapt at the opportunity to shore up its backline.
"When we can bring somebody back with Chris' leadership, his versatility - because he can play three different positions along the back line it gives us depth," Cassar said. "He makes the team better by the way he trains, the way he prepares for games … I think it's going to be a huge piece for us."
Wingert saw time in 27 matches during NYCFC's inaugural MLS campaign in 2015, 26 of which were starts along the back line. RSL's starting left back for the previous eight seasons, Wingert transitioned to mainly the center back position while with NYCFC a year ago.
Cassar said playing the left-footed Wingert at center back in his return to RSL is an option this season.
"And it's a good thing to have options," he said. "I don't think we're going to nail down a position for Chris."
When Wingert was placed on waivers, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said he started pushing for a possible club reunion with a friend he's played with going back as far as 13 during their Olympic Development Program days.
"I really wanted him to come back, and he wanted to be here, which is important," said Beckerman.
In his eight seasons at RSL, Wingert made 204 regular-season appearances, plus 15 postseason starts during the team's seven-year playoff streak from 2008 to 2014. Wingert now sits just four regular-season appearances away from eclipsing the 300-mark.
Adding a player with the experience and flexibility will pay dividends in the lengthy MLS season, Cassar said, not to mention his experience in CONCACAF Champions League, which RSL returns to in three weeks against UANL Tigres.
"He's like three players in one," Beckerman added. "He'll bring a big boost to the team."
After news broke of Wingert's return, the Long Island, N.Y., native posted a photo on his Instagram account saying he bought a one-way ticket from New York City to Salt Lake City.
"I'm sure it'll be like he never left," Beckerman said.
Xolos tops RSL 1-0 in Tijuana
The dry run at RSL's return to the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage finished in a 1-0 loss to Club Tijuana Tuesday afternoon in Mexico. American Paul Arriola scored the eventual game-winner in the 34th minute after running onto the end of a pass between Jamison Olave and Tony Beltran.
The 20-year-old from Chula Vista, Calif., hit a left-footed shot by goalkeeper Nick Rimando. For the first time this preseason, RSL fielded its ideal starting lineup in a competitive match. The starters went 45 minutes before wholesale changes were made at halftime.
"I think there's a lot to learn from this," Beltran said. "I think the fitness is still lacking, but we came out pretty well, we were knocking the ball, but then started turning the ball over a bit, we get frustrated and it gets chaotic from there. Still need to get that sharpness back."
Afterward, Cassar picked the brain of Tijuana coach Miguel Herrera, the former Mexican national team coach, about Tigres.
"[Herrera] said, 'Oh, that's a good team,'" Cassar said.