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RSL owner Checketts gets to MLS Cup his way
by Ridge Mahoney, November 18th, 2009 1PM

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When it comes to owners of sports teams, the dividing line between a meddler and a motivator can be a blurry one.

Some owners straddle that line, others clearly fall on one side or the other. And different people might use either one of those terms, or different ones, to describe Dallas Cowboys' boss Jerry Jones, or New York Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner.

In MLS, there are many ownership groups that prefer to say in the background. And then there is Dave Checketts, majority owner of Real Salt Lake and chairman of SCP Worldwide, who is negotiating to sell a 49-percent ownership stake in RSL to a local real estate developer, Dell Loy Hansen.

Five years after joining the league, RSL - which won just five games as an expansion team -- has reached MLS Cup, and plays in its own facility, Rio Tinto Stadium. SCP also owns the NHL St. Louis Blues, and is pursuing ownership of the NFL Rams. Whether or not the Rams' acquisition is driving Checketts' efforts to sell off part of RSL, he could be selling at just the right time.

Shock and surprise greeted the news in 2004 that Checketts had put down a non-refundable $1 million deposit on an expansion franchise, for which he eventually paid $10 million. With those fees having escalated to $35 million, plus a shiny new stadium as part of his holdings, and RSL in the title game, his timing seems perfect. SCP invested about $65 million in private money to build Rio Tinto, which seats 20,000 and has already hosted non-soccer events, including an Eagles concert, since it opened 14 months ago.

Checketts gets under the skin of people rankled by his drive and a brazen, aggressive manner of doing business. He isn't beyond using all weapons at his disposal. A threat of moving RSL to St. Louis, while never a viable possibility, made for good copy. Political opposition derailed a stadium project until he found the right blend of community and location in nearby Sandy, Utah, and a much publicized ground-breaking before all the pieces were in place drew criticism. He took a radical path by hiring Jason Kreis as a head coach, but again, his boldness has paid off.

"Dave is a great owner and a good friend of mine," says MLS commissioner Don Garber, who during his decade in charge, with a mantra of soccer passion and business sense, has helped lure men like Checketts into the league. "His [New York] office is near our office and we're personal and professional friends. He's shown incredible courage in managing his teams, be it the Blues or RSL. He's a great owner."

That he gets things done can't be questioned, nor his insistence on following his instincts no matter what. He quickly dropped conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh from the Rams' potential ownership group when bad publicity and hostility started piling up. When MLS and SUM stepped in to block SCP's attempted purchase of GolTV, citing a non-compete covenant amongst league ownerships regarding certain properties, the deal fell through. Financial problems were blamed, though surely his bid to buy the Rams will be significanlty larger.

He's a symbol, if not a cozy and cuddly one, of how the league is growing up, of how novelty and idealism are learning to coexist with reality and competition, not just on the field, but from the dozens of other entertainment and sporting options available. Being liked is not as important as being better than the other guy.

Prior to RSL's conference semifinals series against Columbus, he gently hinted in a television interview that just getting back to the playoffs in dramatic fashion for the second year in a row wasn't enough and defending champion or no defending champion, his expectations remained high.

His coach and players have answered that challenge. A year after sneaking into the playoffs on the final day and upsetting Chivas USA in the first round before losing a conference final to New York, RSL has gone a step further. It vanquished the Crew, 4-2, in the conference semifinals on aggregate by winning in Columbus, 3-2, and last weekend knocked off the Fire in Toyota Park on penalty kicks after 120 minutes of goalless play.

Nick Rimando
, the hero of that game with a superb save in regulation and three stops in the penalty-kick tiebreaker, says the players appreciate the nerve and ambition of their owner, who isn't averse to taking a very personal approach. Whether that falls into the category of motivator or meddler or right on the line doesn't so much matter as what has been accomplished.

"He's sparked us as a team," says Rimando. "You want to play for him because he believes in you. I can totally understand how an owner can be around too much and say too much, but he has that balance with the players and the coach.

"He's very personal with the team. He's always in the locker room giving talks. That's good when you have an owner who really wants to win and actually knows your name. You want to fight for them as well."

 



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