You see it in the NFL, NBA and that league which used to be known as the NHL: expansion struggles. A new team, trying to build from scratch with castoffs from the league's established teams, almost invariably has to battle through a death march of a first season. In most pro sports leagues, this has been the rule, with few exceptions.
Not so in MLS, where the MLS Cup title won by the Chicago Fire set the standard for future expansion teams. It could be done. Even the Miami Fusion, the league's other expansion franchise in 1998, enjoyed moderate success. One of the league's new expansion teams, CD Chivas, appears to be headed in that direction thanks to a parent club that will provide them with a steady stream of young, quality talent. Real Salt Lake has no such luck.
After a decent, but unspectacular expansion draft, the Utah club had its chance to give itself a boost in the MLS Draft. Rather than bolster its roster for the 2005 season, RSL managed to puzzle league observers who were left scratching their heads at the numerous questionable moves the team made.
Where to begin? Try with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Rumors had circulated for some time that RSL coach John Ellinger intended to take 16-year-old Nik Besagno, whom he coached on the U.S. Under-17 national team. What seemed to make no sense is that Ellinger chose Besagno even after the teenager had an awful performance at the MLS Combine.
Here's a question. Why even have Besagno at the combine if his performance wasn't going to impact Salt Lake's decision to take him first overall? Couldn't Ellinger just have told Besagno to stay home? Or perhaps Real Salt Lake wanted Besango to impress observers at the combine in order to make his selection as No. 1 look better. If this was the idea, then it backfired and the team had no choice but to stick with him and face the criticism.
The problem with that logic is that the team did have a choice. Real Salt Lake could have traded down and still taken Besagno. You can't tell me that the Los Angeles Galaxy wouldn't have overpaid for that top pick. Steve Sampson, who seems intent in putting his own imprint on the Galaxy no matter how ugly that imprint may be, would have gladly struck a deal and actually approached Salt Lake. Real Salt Lake decided to pass and select Besagno, who is unlikely to contribute much at all this season.
As sure as Ellinger is that Besagno can be a future star, what really is the best case scenario for him? He's a defensive midfielder who doesn't boast the personality of a Freddy Adu or track record of an Alecko Eskandarian. He is a defensive midfielder, not a flashy attacking player, so it is unlikely he is ever going to drive ticket sales or a marketing campaign. He also plays a position where young players don't generally flourish immediately. Ricardo Clark was solid as a 20-year old but he has been the exception. So if Real Salt Lake is lucky, Besagno will be anchoring the midfield in 2008, which will likely be the last year of his MLS contract.
Ellinger took another one of his former U.S. Under-17 players with the team's second pick, forward Jaime Watson. Freddy Adu's strike partner at the 2003 U-17 World Championships, Watson could develop into a quality player a few years from now, but as an 18-year old who didn't exactly dominate in his one season at North Carolina, he seems unlikely to contribute much in the immediate future.
So an expansion team that didn't exactly rake in the talent at the expansion draft spent its top two picks on two teenagers who will be lucky to contribute in 2006. Does Real really think the collection of players it put together at the expansion draft is strong enough to compete, even with the additions of Clint Mathis and Jason Kreis?
Perhaps the most puzzling move of draft day was the club's decision to trade away an expansion allocation to Los Angeles for the second round draft pick (22nd overall) they used to select Indiana goalkeeper Jay Nolly. Now, Nolly's credentials are impeccable. He performed heroically in helping the Hoosiers win two straight national championships. That resume still doesn't eliminate the fact that Real Salt Lake grossly overpaid for someone who, at best, projects to be the team's No. 2 goalkeeper. Clearly, Salt Lake loved Nolly, and it is a safe bet that Kansas City would have snagged Nolly with the 24th overall selection (the Wizards grabbed Notre Dame goalkeeper Chris Sawyer with the pick). However, to surrender an allocation valued by some sources to be between $75,000 and $100,000 was a move that left some opposing team officials stifling their laughter.
So here we are, less than three months from the club's debut at Giants Stadium and the roster and projected lineup are anything but imposing. The team does have Clint Mathis and Jason Kreis at the forwards, but the defense will be average at best and the midfield will only go as far as the enigmatic Andy Williams takes them. Then there is goalkeeper D.J. Countess, who Real Salt Lake think will be a star despite the fact he's already washed out with three franchises before the age of 23. Even if Mathis has his usual fast start, it is hard to envision the team being anywhere but last place in the West.
Are we expecting too much from this expansion franchise? The buzz in Salt Lake City for the team is promising now, but will it continue if the team gets off to a bad start? Perhaps the growing belief around the league that CD Chivas is going to come storming out of the gates with its tailor-made roster and challenge for an MLS Cup title has some expecting similar results from RSL. Real Salt Lake was always going to be the weak sister in this expansion class, but rather than strengthen itself and gain ground in the MLS Draft, the club has done more to create a wider gap.
Diego, not Duncan
Apologies are in order for Columbus midfielder/defender Duncan Oughton for being named as the Crew's worst-ever draft pick in last week's column. Hardly a true flop, Oughton could have been considered the least spectacular high draft pick in the team's history if not for the 2003 first-rounder, midfielder Diego Walsh. A Brazilian-born midfielder, Walsh managed just one goal in 14 goals for the Crew before being traded to Kansas City, where he failed to register a point in 15 appearances last season. Oughton has started 91 games for the Crew since being drafted No. 10 overall in the 2001 draft, and scored his first two goals for Columbus this past season.
Lost in the shuffle of the MLS Draft and trades around the league recently was the shocking firing of MetroStars Chief Operating Officer Tom Neale earlier this week. The move, described by sources as part of restructuring by Metros parent company, AEG, was surprising considering Neale's reputation around the league as one of its best executives. General manager for the San Jose Earthquakes from 2000 to 2001 before joining the MetroStars, Neale was responsible for hiring coach Frank Yallop, who helped guide San Jose to MLS Cup titles in 2001 and 2003. He was seen by some observers as a natural successor to current MetroStars general manager Nick Sakiewicz, but was instead fired on Monday despite being the team's COO during the most successful financial four-year period in the team's history.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (NJ). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com