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Sandy • Seated next to one another in the corner of the new executive club on the east side of Rio Tinto Stadium, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber and Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen riffed on the semantics of the large market vs. small market conversation in MLS.

"I don't believe that our small markets are at a competitive or financial disadvantage to our larger markets," Garber said.

The commissioner of MLS since 1999 turned to Hansen and said, "I'd venture to say you'd rather be in Salt Lake than New York?" Hansen, who purchased RSL outright from original franchise owner Dave Checketts in 2013, said the parity of MLS is what keeps the league evolving.

"That any MLS team can show up and win is part of the mantra," Hansen said.

Garber's stop in Utah on Saturday was part of an annual opening weekend tour that took him from Portland on Friday evening to the Salt Lake Valley afternoon before catching a flight to Orlando, Fla., where Orlando City opens its own new soccer-specific stadium Sunday. After watching first kick, he'll fly to Atlanta where expansion franchise Atlanta United hosts New York Red Bulls in its maiden MLS match.

In his first visit to Rio Tinto Stadium since 2015, Garber reminisced on the expansion chapter that brought RSL to Utah. RSL's expansion brother-in-arms, Chivas USA, has since folded, but Garber made a bold statement in his reflection.

"If not for expansion in 2005 here in Salt Lake … I don't think [MLS] would be existing the way it is today," he said.

As RSL kicked off its 13th MLS season Saturday against Toronto FC, Garber was asked what lies ahead for a franchise like RSL. A soccer-specific stadium has been part of the fabric of the club for 10 seasons now and Hansen's vision of a $50 million academy and training complex in Herriman is expected to be finished within the next year.

"It's seeing the fruits of all their labor," Garber said. "It's remarkable the investment that the ownership has made in the pyramid. It rivals —if it's not greater — than any other team's in the league. I get asked a lot how does Salt Lake keep competing with the New Yorks and the Chicagos, Los Angeleses? They've created their own identity and that identity is trying to be best in class in a number of areas that they have very direct control over."

Commercially, Garber said, RSL punches "way above their weight" rolling into the top quartile of MLS clubs. Success in markets such as Salt Lake, Portland and Kansas City will give perceived "smaller markets" more of a say as MLS expansion continues.

Twelve markets have submitted applications for the final four spots of expansion.

Twitter: @chriskamrani