Maikel Chang and Real Monarchs SLC hope to get their 2019 preseason campaign underway with a win on Friday night against Reno 1868 FC in the inaugural game of the Wasatch Winter Cup. | Photo courtesy Real Monarchs SLC
HERRIMAN, Utah – While the first edition of the Wasatch Winter Cup will kick off on Friday night when hosts Real Monarchs SLC face Reno 1868 FC, the arrival of a premier preseason event featuring USL Championship clubs has in fact been a long time coming.
“We really wanted to get something going in 2015 down at [Utah Valley University], but we couldn’t get buy-in from other teams,” said Monarchs General Manager Dan Egner last week. “Obviously, the lack of facilities hurt a little bit, but we still felt like we could pull it off.”
Now, though, with the completion of the Zions Bank Real Academy and the Monarchs’ home venue it didn’t take much persuasion at all for Reno and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, who will also take part in the three-way tournament at Zions Bank Stadium, to be part of the first edition of a preseason tournament that Egner believes will be a showcase for years to come.
After putting the idea to one side after the Monarchs’ inaugural season to focus on building the state-of-the-art facility in Herriman, a preseason in 2018 which saw the Monarchs suffer through storms in Northern California that led to less-than-ideal conditions brought it back to the front burner. There’s now significant interest from other clubs around the USL Championship in taking part in the second edition in 2020, one that Egner expects to grow to four teams.
“I can tell you I’ve already had an Eastern Conference team reach out to me in regards to next year, which was a pleasant surprise, and one we would love to have,” said Egner. “For us the appealing part is with so many new teams coming into the Western Conference that haven’t been to our facility yet, I think it’s going to be an easy sell.
“Hopefully this year it’s as successful as we think it will be, but ideally next year we would like to add a fourth team to get a nice four-team round-robin tournament, everyone gets three good matchups against quality USL teams. That’s the goal.”
While there’s anticipation for the first edition of the tournament, it will also serve as the first games for the Monarchs under new Head Coach Martin Vasquez. Having coached at the top level in the professional ranks while also more recently serving as a longtime leader in RSL’s Academy, the 55-year-old was the early target to take over from interim Head Coach Jamison Olave after the 2018 season. With the dual-focus of competing for silverware and bringing top young players through its system, Egner believes Vasquez is a perfect fit to continue the Monarchs’ success over the past two seasons in both facets.
“From an organizational standpoint it made all the sense in the world,” said Egner. “When you look at the experience he’s had, at Bayern Munich, at Chivas USA, and the U.S. Men’s National Team, coupled with the fact that he’s been with our Academy longer than any other member of our coaching staff, that’s a big deal.
“For us, the goal was that we want to win and be competitive, and try to win USL Cup and we also want to develop players for [Real Salt Lake], and if you look at Martin, especially within our academy, every year we’re competitive, we win, we’ve won a national championship and in the playoffs we’re always fighting for a spot in the final four, and we develop Homegrowns at a rate faster than almost anyone in MLS, so he ticks both of those boxes and we believe he can continue doing that at the USL level.”
Vasquez’s first task is to pull together a squad that includes some notable returnees like Maikel Chang and Justin Portillo, but that also saw others like goalkeeper Connor Sparrow (Nashville SC), midfielder Charlie Adams (Orange County SC) and standout forward Chandler Hoffman (Birmingham Legion FC) all depart for new Championship clubs. Getting tested by regional rivals in the Switchbacks and Reno, which eliminated the Monarchs from the postseason last fall, is going to be a strong start for Vasquez’s tenure.
Reno 1868 FC forward Brian Brown (right) scored in stoppage time to give his side a 1-0 victory over Real Monarchs SLC in the 2018 Western Conference Quarterfinals. | Photo courtesy McKenzie Burkhart / Real Monarchs SLC
“We’re champing at the bit,” said Egner. “Some of our guys have been back for quite a while now, been spending time with RSL, and everyone else has been back for about 10 days, so it’s really getting to the point now where you want to see some game action.”
The dramatic elimination by 1868 FC that brought the curtain down on the Monarchs’ first season at Zions Bank Stadium still stings for those who were with the club last year. It also added to the postseason disappointment of the 2017 campaign that saw Real claim the regular season title but then fall to Sacramento Republic FC in a penalty shootout in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
With expectations that the side will contend for a top-four position in the Western Conference this season, Egner is hoping that should the Monarchs make a third consecutive trip to the USL Cup Playoffs, things might fall a little more favorably this time around.
“We’d like to think so,” said Egner. “We always say soccer is a cruel mistress, and we’ve experienced that first hand. In 2017, going out on penalties was heartbreaking, especially after the season we’d had, and then last year having turned it around in the last couple of weeks and then having Reno come in, we really felt like the first half was even, and the second half we really felt like we controlled the game and had numerous opportunities. To lose on the last kick of the game, I don’t think anybody saw that coming. If we’re in there this year, we’d really like to hope the ball bounces our way this time.”
Putting their best foot forward over the next week while making the first edition of the Wasatch Winter Cup a success would certainly be a positive stepping stone to keep the Monarchs among the Western Conference’s elite this year.