Like many players, Arturo Alvarez has been around, and like a select few who currently wear the colors of Real Salt Lake, may have found the right fit at the foot of the Wasatch Range.
Formerly of FC Dallas and San Jose, used as both a forward and wide midfielder, and once hopeful of a spot on the U.S. national team before switching his allegiance to El Salvador, Alvarez epitomizes a type of skillful, streaky attacker who isn’t quite worthy of consistent starts but is of great value in spot duty and off the bench.
In the RSL pecking order among forwards, he’s a definite fourth behind Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola and young Brazilian Paulo Araujo Jr., and as such didn’t figure to see much time – barring injuries or red cards – in the Concacaf Champions’ League finals against Monterrey. The play of Araujo Jr. while on loan last year from Miami FC, particularly in the CCL, prompted RSL to bring him back, and he’s been first choice either as sub or when Saborio or Espindola can’t start.
Before that deal came to fruition, though, in late November RSL had sent a second-round draft pick to Portland a few hours after the Timbers claimed Alvarez from San Jose in the Expansion Draft. What seemed to be a minor move paid off hugely against Monterrey Wednesday; with Araujo Jr. injured and unable to play because of a strained hamstring, Alvarez got a spot on the bench, and in the 82nd minute replaced a laboring Saborio.
Upon signing Alvarez, 25, the RSL staff lauded his ability to disrupt defenses with speed and aggression, yet he also fits the team philosophy of fielding players with good feet. With less than two minutes left in regulation and RSL trailing, 2-1, Alvarez collected a loose ball near the sideline, and with a delicate flick of his foot gave Javier Morales a chance to score the equalizer, which he did by shimmying past a defender and shooting low inside the far post.
“Arturo [Alvarez] made a good play on the outside to give me the ball,” said Morales, who like Saborio had been quelled by Monterrey for much of the game. “I touched it and that’s when the defender came to me. I tried to cut and cross the ball and was happy because it ended up as a goal.”
In building their squad, in addition to game-changers acquired internationally such as Saborio, Espindola, Morales and defender Jamison Olave, general manager Garth Lagerwey and head coach Jason Kreis have also culled a remarkable array of first-teamers with MLS experience elsewhere.
Will Johnson (Chicago), Nick Rimando (D.C. United), Chris Wingert and Kyle Beckerman (both Colorado), Ned Grabavoy (Los Angeles), and Andy Williams (five teams, most recently Chicago) all came to Salt Lake City from domestic rivals. Ex-Rapid Nat Borchers stopped over in Scandinavia before coming back to MLS. Beckerman, Rimando and Williams were also teammates with the defunct Miami Fusion.
The addition of Alvarez mirrors a commitment made a year and a half ago, when RSL’s triumph against the Galaxy in MLS Cup 2009 qualified it for the 2010-11 CCL. Kreis and Lagerwey knew back then the importance of depth, and at RSL, backups do not just fill spots on the roster. With a squad of 28, two below the league maximum of 30, RSL spread around an additional $100,000 in allocation money supplied by MLS to CCL participants and signed most of its regulars to long-term deals rather than add two more players.
RSL could never have reached this stage without talent, skill, and determination at least comparable to the top Concacaf teams in other countries. It received scheduling breaks from MLS during the semifinals, and MLS moved its game with Philadelphia this weekend to September to increase its readiness for the second leg on Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium, where it is unbeaten in 37 games.
As a team, RSL’s advancement to the brink of a regional club title is a study in smart tactics and intelligent deployment of talented personnel. As an organization, its management of limited resources to succeed against richer clubs may be an even greater accomplishment, and a challenge to its league foes.