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When Alvaro Saborio knocked home a game-tying header in the waning seconds of the home opener for Real Salt Lake nearly eight months ago, team officials knew they had found the valuable target striker for whom they had been searching for years.
Now, they get to keep him.
Saborio became the first "designated player" in RSL history on Wednesday, when the team announced a new four-year deal for the 28-year-old Costa Rican that assured not only that it can keep its leading scorer through the 2014 Major League Soccer season, but that it will be prepared to make a serious run for the CONCACAF Champions League title in the spring.
"That's the most meaningful competition we have every been a part of," general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "Arguably bigger than MLS Cup. … Every resource we have as an organization is going toward trying to win this tournament in the spring. It's that big."
Yet while making Saborio a designated player instantly vaults him into the pantheon of big-name stars such as Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry, RSL has managed to avoid blowing up a well-balanced team that it has spent the past 31/2 years building.
In fact, team officials said Saborio is a designated player only because it cost so much to buy his contract rights from FC Sion in Switzerland.
Though he declined to reveal exactly what the team paid, Lagerwey said RSL negotiated a substantial discount to the original $1 million buyout fee. League rules allow such acquisition costs to be combined with a player's salary to determine his cost against the team's annual salary budget, which is what put Saborio over the $335,000 threshold for designated players. Saborio actually will earn close to $245,000 in the first year of what's technically a two-year deal with team options for each of the subsequent two years.
That's comparable to the salaries that midfielders Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman earned as the team's highest-paid players last season about $250,000 each and important in not upsetting the club's "team is the star" philosophy.
Negotiations on the deal were "by far the most complicated" RSL has ever done, Lagerwey said, because they involved not only Saborio and his agent, but also FC Sion and Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica, which also owned a share of the player's contract. Every aspect of the new deal had to be vetted by every stakeholder, spanning four countries and nine time zones.
There was a looming deadline, too.
Saborio had been on loan to RSL from FC Sion until Wednesday, at which point the Swiss club could have entertained other offers for Saborio, which probably would have pushed up the price. Saborio scored 18 goals in all competitions in his first season with RSL, and was named the MLS Newcomer of the Year.
"We certainly didn't want to lose him," coach Jason Kreis said especially after RSL lost forward Robbie Findley in the recent expansion draft.
That's why Lagerwey had been at work on the negotiations almost non-stop over the last two weeks.
At one point, he spent three straight days with agent Horatio Patanian, and traveled with him to Miami to continue their talks.
In the end, team owners Dave Checketts and Dell Loy Hansen shelled out thousands of dollars to pay for the buyout straightaway, keeping RSL from having to use allocation money to make a deal work.
"If ownership had not stepped up," Lagerwey said, "we would have had to trade one or two players" to remain under the salary budget.
Birthplace • Ciudad Quesada, Costa Rica
Height • 6-foot
Age • 28
2010 • Had 12 goals and four assists in his first season for RSL.
2009-10 • Played in 19 games for Bristol FC in England.
2006-09 • Scored 36 goals in 87 games with FC Sion of Switzerland.
2001-06 • Scored 95 goals in 149 games for Club Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica.
National team • 22 goals in 55 games for Costa Rica, including two appearance in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.