Isolated in arid, Mormon-dominated, drink-controlled Utah, Salt Lake City seems an unlikely spot for a local sports mogul to site an MLS franchise.
But in 2004, this was where Dave Checketts took a gamble in establishing Real Salt Lake, naming it after the record Champions League winners from Madrid and adopting the colors of Spain.
This skiing and snowboarding hub had just staged the Winter Olympics and Utah Jazz had not long lost out to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in two consecutive NBA Finals. Little was expected of a soccer team here.
Sure enough, RSL picked up unenviable winless streaks while playing at Rice-Eccles Stadium, downtown venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in 2002.
At the same time, negotiations for a soccer-specific stadium in the southern suburb of Sandy continued to founder, key parties unconvinced by the financial viability of the project. Real Salt Lake came close to a rapid demise before a last-minute agreement on a funding restructure broke the ice.
Ironically, the deal was announced when Real Madrid hit town for a showcase friendly. Rio Tinto Stadium duly opened in October 2008.
The 20,213-capacity arena soon witnessed a number of unbeaten streaks, the longest running for 29 games between June 2009 and May 2011. During that time, Real Salt Lake won its only MLS Cup to date, beating LA Galaxy, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and all. MVP goalkeeper Nick Rimando, whose three saves in the Eastern Conference Final shootout had sunk Chicago Fire, repeated the feat in Seattle. Rimando later set MLS records for shutouts and appearances. Captain and holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman and chance creator Javier Morales proved equally vital.
All starred in RSL’s run to the CONCACAF Champions League Finals in April 2011. A full house packed Rio Tinto after the Utah side gained a 2-2 draw in Monterrey, who picked up the first of three consecutive titles thanks to a solitary goal from Humberto Suazo. The Mexicans also qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup that December.
Crowds still averaged 19,000-20,000 as RSL continued to challenge, making the playoffs each year until 2015 and establishing a significant fan base. 2013 was to prove a watershed, with Checketts selling ownership to former vice-chairman Dell Loy Hansen, and the departure of Jason Kreis. The first player to sign for Salt Lake, the first player to score for Salt Lake, Kreis was also the first player to score 100 goals in MLS. His No.9 shirt was duly retired.
Staying at the club to become the youngest head coach in the league, Kreis had led RSL to the MLS Cup in 2009 and consecutive playoffs. Overcoming LA Galaxy in extra time then trouncing Portland Timbers thanks to a Morales masterclass, Salt Lake traveled to Kansas City, staging the 2013 MLS Cup in its own stadium. Despite more Rimando miracles, the hosts won a penalty shootout 7-6, Jamaican defender Lovel Palmer thumping the last kick for the visitors against the bar.
After the record sudden-death decider, Kreis declined a contract extension at Salt Lake to head for new franchise New York City.
Rimando, Beckerman and Morales stayed at Rio Tinto Stadium, former assistant coach Jeff Cassar taking Salt Lake to the 2014 Western Conference Semifinals, where a Landon Donavon hat-trick helped LA Galaxy thump the Utah side 5-0.
Replacing Cassar after a sorry start to the 2017 campaign, Mike Petke arrived from Real Salt Lake affiliate Real Monarchs. With Slovak international Albert Rusnák taking over playmaking duties from Dallas-bound Javier Morales, Real Salt Lake picked up to line up a Knockout Round spot.
After drawn-out negotiations that nearly saw the project fold completely, Rio Tinto Stadium opened in October 2008, shortly before Real Salt Lake went on the longest of several winning streaks here.
Located nine miles south of downtown in Sandy, beside busy Interstate 15 that runs from Mexico to Canada, Rio Tinto is recognized by its sweeping roofs backdropped by the Wasatch Mountains.
Within, 20,213 seats in Real Salt Lake red are set close to the action on the Kentucky Bluegrass pitch. Average gates are close to its capacity.
As well as staging regular international matches for U.S. men’s and women’s teams – including a 2017 friendly against Venezuela that attracted 17,000-plus – Rio Tinto is home to Real Monarchs, currently riding high in the Western Conference of the second-tier United Soccer League (USL).
For RSL games, the most vociferous fans occupy the South Goal, Sections 9-11, Section 26 behind the North Goal and standing-only Section 35. Section 24 is dedicated to families. Visiting supporters are allocated various sections in the NorthWest corner according to demand – in the case of Seattle, it’s the complete row from sections 28-34, as well as section 5 closer to the South Goal.
From the terminus at Salt Lake Central – part of the Salt Lake City Intermodal Hub where Amtrax train, Greyhound and local bus services also meet – it’s a 40-minute ride to Sandy Expo.
If you’re coming into Salt Lake City International Airport, take the TRAX Green Line and change onto the Blue at any of several stations, including City Center.
Salt Lake Central is on S 600 W Street on the western edge of downtown, close to many bars. Don’t stray into the blocks immediately east of the Hub, notorious for rough sleepers.
At Sandy Expo Station, turn right, then immediate right again, and the stadium is on the right.
Trains run every 15-20min. The One-Way fare is $2.50, Day tickets $6.25.
If you’re coming by car, the address you’re heading for is Rio Tinto Stadium, 9256 State St, Sandy, UT 84070. From the North, take I-15 Southbond, exit for 9000 South. Turn right at State Street. Permit parking Lot 2 will be on your right. From the airport, take I-80 East onto I-15.
From the South, take I-15 Northbound, exit for 10600 South, turn left at State Street, left onto 9400 South, right onto Stadium’s Ring Road. Permit parking Lot 2 will be on your right.
Note that Ring Road traffic flows South-North before kickoff on game days, North-South afterwards.
There is plenty of designated Cash and Public Parking around the stadium, fees around $10-$15. Note that some lots impose a 2-hour deadline after the game finishes. Those dining at the restaurants in the nearby Jordan Commons center can park there for free.
Tickets are available in person from the stadium Box Office (Mon-Fri 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Matchdays 10 a.m. – Halftime) on the West side, by phone on 844-REAL-TIX (844-732-5849) and online. You’ll find the Will Call outlet at the Main Box Office.
Ticket promotions are also offered at various points of the season, including the recent popular Colonel’s Corner ones through 34 branches of KFC, providing $15 admission into Sections 6 and 7.
The cheapest seats are otherwise $25 for the North Goal – those at $20 behind the South Goal (Sections 9-11) are occupied by Season Ticket holders. Visiting supporters in North Goal sections are charged $27-$35.
A decent spot in the sideline East Stand is $35-$40, $65 in the West Stand.
Sightlines are generally excellent.
RSL has two stores, one downtown at the base of the Wells Fargo tower, 55 East Broadway/300 South (Mon-Fri 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sat 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.), and one on the East Side of the stadium (same hours & Matchdays).
A Custom Jersey in RSL red with blue-and-yellow piping will cost you $149.99, a Secondary Replica in white, $84.99.
Tailgating items include growlers, pint glasses, soccer balls, can coolers, cooler bags and all manner of banners, flags and stickers.
There’s plenty of scope for tailgate parties around Rio Tinto Stadium. Salt City United (SCU) congregates in the Northwest Supporters Parking Lot then heads off en masse in time for kickoff. Rogue Cavaliers Brigade (RCB) has been tailgating since the Rice-Eccles days and meets in a lot north of the stadium, while random groups set up grills and coolers around the cash lots southwest of the stadium, close to the home end.
The club lays on its own PreMatch Carnival Real, a family-friendly array of inflatables, mini soccer and live music.
Many gather at the America First Pavilion by the main entrance, with a huge outdoor terrace, HD video screen, playgrounds and all-you-can-eat deals at $25. Reservations recommended.
Anyone dining at the Jordan Commons multiplex on State Street southwest of the stadium can park for free – although choices are limited after the closure of its Mexican, Italian and Japanese eateries.
You’ll find plenty of bars downtown, particularly between 100 Street South and University Blvd, around the Gallivan Center. Many serve as pre-match meeting points – Courthouse TRAX Station is close by – and stage watch parties for RSL away games.
Johnny’s on Second, ‘home of the $4 shot & beer’ at 165 E. 200 S., attracts a raucous crowd for televised games, broadcast on 11 screens. Alongside, Beer Bar and Bar X are lively, smaller, drinkeries.
Over on Main Street, Maxwell’s East Coast Eatery is a long-established Italian restaurant with a sports bar element. Nearby on West Temple, bar/diner Gracie’s offers live music, sports on more than 30 TVs, quality burgers and scores of beers on tap and by the bottle.
In the suburbs south from downtown, hardened fans meet at The Huddle, a small, traditional sports bar on Fort Union Boulevard in Cottonwood Heights, connected by #72 bus with Midvale Fort Union TRAX station, three stops from Sandy Expo.
Three stops from Sandy Expo in the opposite direction, south of Sandy in Draper, a family crowd of RSL fans converge on the Oak Wood Fire Kitchen for excellent pizzas and big-screen soccer. It’s just off E 700 Street/E12300 S, 10 minutes’ walk along E700 Street from Kimballs Lane Station.
To stay close to the stadium, cheap and cheerful Econo Lodge Inn & Suites is 5 minutes’ walk away, by the I-15 where E900 Street passes under it. Turn left outside and left again on E900, then right at the lights and stadium is on the right.
Salt Lake City Timeline
1906-1910 Workers form Salt Lake AFC and the wonderfully named Utah Copper Soccerites, their details lost in the mists of time.
1920s-1930s Clubs such as Caledonians, Vikings, AC Germania and Hollandia reflect their ethnicity and compete for the Salt Lake Telegram Trophy. Venues include Fairmont Park, Sunnyside Park and, close by, Rice Stadium on the campus of the University of Utah.
1976 Utah Pioneers, later renamed Utah Golden Spikers, given a franchise to play in the American Soccer League, won that year by Los Angeles Skyhawks, underpinned by Ron Yeats of Shankly-era Liverpool fame. On Utah’s books are Lee Benson, later a Senior District Judge, Ireland international goalkeeper Peter Thomas and striker Tony Douglas, best known for scoring the penalty that won the LA Aztecs the NASL Final in 1974. Utah loses out in the Playoff Quarterfinals to Tacoma Tides, whose reserve goalkeeper was… Bruce Arena, current head coach of the U.S. national team.
1990-1991 Salt Lake Sting plays 1 whole season in the American Professional Soccer League (APSL), losing to Colorado Foxes in the Western Conference Playoffs, unwittingly instigating a regional rivalry. Based at Derks Field, today Smith’s Ballpark, Sting wins only 3 games in 20 the following season and shuts down before the final round.
2000 Utah Blitzz founded. First playing at Rice-Eccles Stadium, built on the site of the original Rice Stadium in 1997, Blitzz wins 2 USL Pro Soccer/D3 Pro League titles under head coach Chris Agnello.
2004 Blitzz paves the way for Real Salt Lake, formed in the first wave of MLS franchise expansions. Agnello hired as assistant coach for the first season, based at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
2008 Rio Tinto Stadium opens.
2009 Real Salt Lake wins MLS Cup.