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Sandy Journal

RSL shares Rio Tinto with the Whitecaps

Jul 22, 2021 12:00PM ● By Ron Bevan

By Ron Bevan | [email protected]

It was a game for the ages when Real Salt Lake met up with the Vancouver Whitecaps June 18 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.

The two teams battled to a tie through the 90th minute. Then, two quick shots found the back of the net and the home team came away with a 3-1 victory. The home team also suffered a 3-1 loss.

You see, for the 2021 season, Rio Tinto is the home stadium for both RSL and Vancouver. The Whitecaps found a new home in Sandy due to the COVID pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused everyone around the world to open their arms to their neighbors in a time of need. As such, we are proud to welcome the Vancouver Whitecaps FC to Utah for the 2021 season,” John Kimball, interim president of Real Salt Lake, said prior to the start of the season.

The move is in response to the Canadian Government’s attempt to stem the pandemic. Canada has held a standing quarantine order for teams traveling between countries. This meant that for some consistency in play, the three Canadian teams, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver had to find temporary homes in the United States.

This move began last year after MLS teams were sequestered in a bubble in Orlando, Florida. Once the bubble was loosened and teams were allowed to go home, Vancouver found its home in Portland, Oregon. While Portland at least gave Vancouver a closeness to its home base, it wasn’t ideal for the team. The Whitecaps had to share the locker room and didn’t have their own practice facility. This forced the players to store all of their equipment in their hotel rooms and haul it back and forth daily.

For the start of the 2021 season, Vancouver was looking for a different home. Enter Rio Tinto and Tara Cupello, the chief financial officer for Real Salt Lake.

“Our CFO was among others on a call with the entire league at some point during the preseason. It was mentioned the three teams in Canada were looking for host locations to play part or all of the 2021 season due to travel restrictions. Basically, the teams and the visiting teams would have had to quarantine for 14 days prior to game day if they stayed in Canada,” Leif Smith, director of events for Rio Tinto Stadium, said. “The option for Portland was still there, but they were looking for a place that could be more of a home. Our CFO said we could host them.”

Cupello’s thought process involved changes RSL made to the soccer presence in Utah. A few years ago the club built a second home locker room at Rio Tinto to house the Utah Royals, Utah’s professional women’s soccer team. The Royals called Rio Tinto home from 2018 through 2020, but during the offseason the Royals were sold and moved to Kansas City.

At the same time, RSL moved its practices to the RSL training academy, a new practice facility built in Herriman. This left the America First Field near Sandy City Hall vacant.

“Part of the reason this has worked out so well is that we had these facilities, a professional quality locker room and practice field, that could be used exclusively by Vancouver,” Smith said. “They get what they needed and it hasn’t been a burden to us. It is just like the last three years, but instead of the Royals, it is another men’s team right here.”

“Our organization showed what we are, both as a team and as a city,” said RSL midfielder Damir Kreilach. “Everyone is very welcoming. I think this is how it should be. Everyone should always be ready to help out their neighbors. It is great for the league and great for both of us.”

Even players for Vancouver have noticed what Sandy has to offer.

“The city has been very good to us. The reception has been incredible by everyone,” Caio Alexancre, Whitecaps midfielder, said. “It is a calm city where we can train in a peaceful environment and then go home and rest. We have been able to establish a good routine.”

However, no matter how accepting a community is and how good the facilities might be, it is still a challenge for a team to be away from its home base. While acknowledging how grateful he is to RSL and how they are in the best situation they can be, Vancouver coach Marc Dos Santos is hoping they can get clearance to move back to Vancouver soon.

“It is very hard to be away from your own homes for so long. I think our choice of where we could be in the U.S. was a very good one. This is a fantastic city. People have been great.  Everybody we meet outside the game have been great people. My thoughts about Sandy are always going to be very positive ones,” Dos Santos said. “But we have been away from Vancouver since MLS came back and it looks far in the future. I have been watching the home games for RSL and the environment they have with their fans to push the team. You see a difference when teams can play at home. We feel it right now. It has been heavy on us. We just want to go back home. This isn’t a knock on the city. We enjoy it a lot and have been well taken care of.”

Dos Santos may get his wish. Canada did announce on June 6 an exemption for border travel for the final two rounds of the National Hockey League playoffs, allowing the Montreal Canadiens to play home games with Las Vegas and also travel to Las Vegas. Certain COVID protocols remained in place. Teams travelling into and out of Canada must do so in a private plane. They are also subject to daily COVID-19 testing.

“It is getting close to the time we wish the (Canadian) government would open things back up and we get the opportunity to go back home,” Dos Santos said. “Hopefully, with what is happening with the Montreal Canadiens the government can be fair and finally give the Canadian teams the opportunity to go back home.”

In the meantime, it was announced Vancouver will now have some spectators for its home games in July at Rio Tinto. A total of 2,000 fans will be allowed for the games, with the opportunity to increase the number.

“The decision for attendance came through social media, where RSL fans expressed interest and said they would support Vancouver,” Smith said. “Enough of them posted this desire for us to notice.”