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Craig Waibel and his front office staff have their list of must-watch matches worldwide. Some tune-ins are just for kicks, others for work. Sometimes those worlds collide. So on March 15, Real Salt Lake's general manager once again saw a player he's had his eye on the previous six months.
The 20-year-old Jefferson Savarino showed Waibel and his staff exactly what they needed to see in that match. The dynamic Venezuelan forward scored the game-winner to propel Zulia FC to a 1-0 win over Uruguayan club Nacional on the road in the Copa Libertadores tournament, which features the top teams from around South America.
What they saw was a small, shifty striker who could pester back lines with his ability on the ball and ability to hit the back of the net with either foot. They finally went in full pursuit. RSL finalized a deal for the Venezuelan goal-scorer nearly two months since Savarino scored in Copa Libertadores.
RSL announced Tuesday it had acquired Savarino on loan from Zulia FC, a club based in Maracaibo, Venezuela, for the remainder of the 2017 season. Savarino will qualify as a Young Designated Player at RSL and will become active on the RSL roster upon receipt of his International Transfer Certificate.
RSL also used the league's Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) mechanism to buy down the budget hit of forward Joao Plata to below the Designated Player threshold. Plata recently signed a new extension with the franchise in March. Waibel told The Tribune that the loan deal with Zulia FC already has a purchase price attached to it.
"We don't really bring in band-aids, so to say," Waibel said. "We bring in guys we're looking to make a long-term impact."
For a roster in transition, Savarino serves as the latest signal that RSL is leaning toward a youth movement sooner than later. The 20-year-old arrives on the heels of playmaker Albert Rusnák, the 22-year-old Slovakian international signed this offseason as the heir to Javier Morales. Savarino had 22 goals and 12 assists in 48 career matches with Zulia FC in the Venezuelan Primera Division.
"When you talk to a 20-year-old that's attacking and playing well, he certainly had other options and he chose to come here," Waibel said. "He understands where we are as a club. We have a talented roster, but we're trying to get younger, most consistent and have stability for the future."
So how did RSL sell Savarino?
Well, Waibel said one of the first things he had to do was get a map of the United States in front of the forward, have him locate Utah and Salt Lake City and immediately learn that RSL is not located near New York City or Los Angeles. The process of hammering out contract details lasted as long as seven weeks, Waibel said.
RSL did not make the trek to South America to watch Savarino play. Venezuela has been in a state of unrest in recent weeks as demonstrators have taken to the streets to voice their anger with President Nicólas Maduro. The front office has been following Savarino for so long that they didn't feel the need to. Conversations were held routinely over Skype.
"The last three and four weeks have brought a bit of concern," Waibel said. "Certainly finishing this process, immigration and everything like that, it's a relief. It's a good addition to our club. We would've been really disappointed if it didn't get done because both sides definitely wanted it to happen."
RSL wants to expedite the acclimation process, if possible. Savarino arrived in Utah on Monday and is expected to train with his new team Tuesday. Waibel said he already expects the new striker to be available for Saturday's road match at the New England Revolution.
"This isn't a guy we're just bringing here to plug a hole or find out if he can do it," Waibel said. "There's no reason to shy away from the fact that he needs to understand that he's coming here to be important, not just be a cog in the wheel."