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A Tale of Two in Salt Lake
by Ridge Mahoney, October 24th, 2008 7AM

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[MLS] In a perfect world, Real Salt Lake, buoyed by two wins in its new stadium, would be getting ready for the playoffs. Alas, RSL isn't perfect in its nearly perfect Rio Tinto Stadium. A victory and a tie has left RSL a point short of securing the team's first playoff spot in its four years of operation. To reach the playoffs when it faces Colorado Saturday it must perform a feat it's done only twice all season: win a road game.

Yet failure to do so isn't likely to stem strong fan support and community-wide enthusiasm in a market many questioned when it came to public light just four years ago. On and off the field, RSL is on the right track. One of the team's players and one of its executives, forward Yura Movsisyan and team president Bill Manning, respectively, arrived in Salt Lake City by very different routes, as have many of the city's residents, but neither has any doubt he's in the right place.

'SOCCER GUY.' Manning left the NFL Philadelphia Eagles last spring to get back into soccer.

"The nice thing about this market, too, and this was appealing to me, is that we're a pretty big fish in this town as opposed to some of the other markets, where you feel fifth on the totem pole," he says. "After the [NBA] Jazz, we are a clear No. 2, no doubt about it. We get good press coverage and we're legitimate in this town.

"The stadium has brought us a new level of credibility, because I think there was some skepticism that it would be like a glorified high school stadium, and you walk into the stadium and you are just blown away. It's first-class."

Prior to the stadium's first RSL match, a 1-1 tie with New York on Oct. 9, Manning had compared notes with Coach Jason Kreis about the stadiums they'd encountered during their pro careers. Manning grew up on Long Island and came out of college -- Division II Bridgeport -- in 1987, years after the NASL had folded and with prospects of another pro outdoor league dim at best.

"There was no MLS," says Manning, "and we hadn't even hosted the World Cup. It's mind-boggling what's happened since then and it's here to stay. We walked through with players the other night and Jason was talking to them, saying, 'You don't know what I went through, the places I had to play in.' And I said to Jason, 'I'm six or seven years older than you, you don't know what I went through.'

"People don't realize he played in the USL as well, with the Raleigh Flyers and the New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers. I played for the [New York] Fever and the Valley Golden Eagles. I was a little too old by the time MLS came along but Jason had a great career."

Manning's two years as president and general manger of Tampa Bay ended when MLS chopped off it and the Miami Fusion prior to the 2002 season. He worked for the NBA Rockets and NFL Eagles until his game called him back.

"From the executives I work with, I think the league has earned a lot of credibility from the business side over the last five or six years," says Manning. "These positions have become a lot more appealing. And let's face it, I'm a soccer guy."

YURA'S TALE. Movsisyan grew up in the oppressed Armenian community of Baku, Azerbaijan, dreaming of playing professional soccer while enduring hostilities and occasional atrocities inflicted on his people. Training and playing in Rio Tinto is about as far from his origins as can be imagined; he hadn't played on any organized soccer team when his parents moved their family to Southern California eight years ago.

"It's basically a reward for the players, to train all week and then on the weekend perform on a very, very nice field in a first-class stadium," says Movsisyan, using the same wording as Manning. "That is something as a player you get rewarded with, especially with a good group of fans."

His coach at Pasadena High School Cherif Zein promised Movsisyan that if he played at Pasadena City College, which Zein also coached, Zein would work his contacts in MLS. Zein passed the word to former Galaxy assistant coach Ralph Perez, who finagled an invite to the 2006 Player Combine, Movsisyan did well, and Kansas City picked him in the SuperDraft. Dreams do come true.

Movsisyan is tied for the team lead in goals with six, and is welcomed and cheered by Armenians in several MLS cities - New York, Boston, San Jose - and though the Armenian community in Salt Lake City is small, he and his wife Marianna enjoy the benefits of a second support group.

"The Salt Lake fans have always been good," says Movsisyan. "Every time I came to Salt Lake with Kansas City I saw how the fans were always behind them and they went through thick and thin. It's a good thing to see, because at the end of the day, these are the fans who are supporting you."

He's occasionally recognized around town and asked to sign autographs and pose for pictures, and it seems perfectly natural for RSL fans to embrace an Armenian refugee who came to Utah by way of Azerbaijan, Southern California and Kansas City. On the roster are players from Argentina, Scotland, Colombia, Canada, Jamaica, Ghana, Ukraine, Liberia and the United States. He's a little too Californian to stay nestled next to the Wasatch Mountains during a cold winter, and plans to head there as soon as the season is over, but otherwise feels right at home.

"I'm happy here and as long as I'm playing I'll be happy," he says. "I think this is a great situation for me, with all the guys we have and the new stadium and the coaching staff. I don't think I would want to go anywhere else."



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