Sandy • It's yet another sign that Real Salt Lake is growing up.
When the defending MLS Cup champions take on the rival Colorado Rapids at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night, they will be going almost head-to-head with two of the biggest sports draws in the market. The Utah Utes and BYU Cougars will be playing college football home games at about the same time, yet the soccer team still is expecting a strong crowd of about 16,000 fans a clear indication it's a legitimate player in the local sports scene with an increasingly devoted audience.
"We've really developed a core group of fans for whom we're their No. 1 option," team president Bill Manning said.
Not that RSL wants to go against the top dogs every weekend.
College football and the NBA's Utah Jazz remain by far the most popular sports events in the Salt Lake City area, as evidenced by the massive crowds they draw to home games.
But little by little, RSL is reaping the benefits of an increasingly mature and independent fan base that doesn't need to be dragged away from football to watch futbol. Its average attendance is 16,760 highest since its inaugural season in 2005 and growing, up about 2.5 percent from its first full season in Rio Tinto Stadium last year.
"There are soccer lovers everywhere," midfielder Andy Williams said. "We transformed a bunch of people into loving us, and it always helps when you're champions."
Certainly, that has helped immensely.
Winning the title last season delivered a strong measure of credibility to a team that had flopped around miserably for so long fans went "through hell" watching it in the early years, Williams said even though many skeptics derided its accomplishment as a fluke, following a mediocre regular season.
But RSL has backed up the championship with the best regular season in its history.
It has racked up a team-record 47 points in the standings from a 13-4-8 record with still five games remaining, and set a league record with its 23-game regular-season unbeaten streak at home. It can clinch a playoff spot with a victory against the Rapids you mean the team won't wait until the last day of the season? and remain in the hunt for the Supporters Shield regular-season title.
"One word I got for you," Manning said. "Winning."
"What's interesting now is that the evolution of our team has come so far that when we tie a game, people are pissed off," he added. "For the most part, people come to watch us play and they go home happy. … We've really come a long, long way."
Yet there remains work to be done.
General manager Garth Lagerwey is wary of too much self-congratulation, noting that while RSL is "making progress" on improving its fan base, "we are still very date-driven and event-driven, and less opponent-driven and star-driven."
What that means is that while the BYU Cougars might be able to draw 60,000 fans to a football game in a snowstorm on Halloween night, RSL is hardly in the same position. It still has to hope for decent weather and provide attractive dates and game times (and sometimes, fireworks) to assure its biggest crowds.
But the discussion within the organization has changed.
Anymore, Manning said, team officials are wondering how to "become Toronto."
"We feel we've arrived, I guess, as a franchise," he said. "So how can we now take that next step as a franchise? How can we break through the plateau and become a Toronto?"
The Reds are one of the most popular teams in MLS, drawing an average of 20,665 fans per game that's second, behind the Seattle Sounders and their massive 36,167 average despite having never reached the playoffs.
To reach that level of support, Manning said, RSL probably needs to boost its number of season-ticket holders from just under 7,000 to about 10,000.
Then, "all the sudden we're approaching a sellout nearly every game," based on the number of individual and group tickets the team usually sells, as well.
So that's down the line.
For the moment, the team is pleased to know that it still will have a nice crowd for the game against its biggest rival, despite everything else happening on what's expected to be a beautiful fall evening.
"That's awesome," coach Jason Kreis said. "We all know how much those universities and those football programs are loved, so it's significant, that's for sure."
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Only one other time has RSL played a game at Rio Tinto Stadium on the same day that the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars played college football games at home. It happened Oct. 24 last year, when RSL drew 18,675 fans to watch a 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids that vaulted it improbably into the Major League Soccer playoffs when a series of other results came out precisely the way the team needed. The Utes dramatically had defeated Air Force 23-16 in overtime earlier that day in front of 45,129 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium, while the Cougars lost 38-7 to TCU in front of 64,641 fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The Salt Lake Tribune
Colorado at RSL
P Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • Fox Soccer •
Home sweet home
MLS average attendance before the weekend's games:
1. Seattle Sounders • 36,167
2. Toronto FC • 20,665
3. Los Angeles Galaxy • 20,213
4. Philadelphia Union • 19,896
5. New York Red Bulls • 17,927
6. Houston Dynamo • 16,860
7. Real Salt Lake • 16,760
8. Chicago Fire • 15,575
9. Columbus Crew • 14,597
10. D.C. United • 14,271
11. Chivas USA • 13,793
12. Colorado Rapids • 13,046
13. New England Revolution • 12,070
14. FC Dallas • 11,169
15. Kansas City Wizards • 10,109
16. San Jose Earthquakes • 9,569
Source • Major League Soccer