SANDY — Over what proved to be a season-and-a-half, mercurial midfielder Clint Mathis played a huge role in turning around the fortunes of Real Salt Lake.
In his first stint with the club during the franchise's inaugural 2005 season, Mathis struggled to live up to the huge expectations that followed him while being saddled on a team that was well below par. But in his second stint with the club starting midway through the 2008 season, Mathis was instrumental in helping RSL reach unprecedented heights, which culminated in an MLS Cup win last November.
Now Mathis' second run with the club is done.
Following last November's championship, Mathis asked RSL officials to trade him to L.A. so he could be closer to his wife's family in Southern California, and the team granted that request on Thursday at the MLS SuperDraft inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
RSL shipped Mathis and its 16th overall pick in this year's draft to Los Angeles in exchange for L.A's 15th overall pick and a third-round pick in next year's draft. Salt Lake subsequently chose Portland midfielder Collen Warner with the 15th pick, and the club made three defensive selections below him.
Hoping to bolster its depth at the back, Real drafted defenders Justin Davis of the University of New Mexico (2nd round, No. 32 overall), Chris Schuler of Creighton University (3rd round, No. 39 overall) and Kris Banghart of the University of Denver (4th round, 64th overall).
RSL coach Jason Kreis sees Warner, a player the club persuaded to sign with MLS instead of trialing with clubs overseas, as a guy who could play one of RSL's outside midfield positions in its preferred 4-4-2 formation. Davis, meanwhile, is projected by the club to be a left back, while Schuler and Banghart are athletic central defenders.
Salt Lake hopes the acquisition of those four players will help fill holes in its side, but there's no question that the big new of the day was the departure of Mathis.
"I think no doubt it's a difficult situation," Kreis said of choosing to trade Mathis. "We have to weigh the interests of the club against the interests of the individual, but I also think we need to reward players that have helped us succeed. I think Clint was a big factor in turning the mentality of the club around. He's been a big factor in our success, and he's also a player that's coming to the end of his career.
"I believe that players, at some point, deserve a say in their future, so I think it's beneficial for him to move to L.A., and I think in the end it's maybe beneficial for us. We're gonna have to get younger. He was one of our older players and also a guy that you don't know how much he's got left in him."
That last point is something that probably shouldn't be understated. While Mathis was arguably RSL's best player during the opening two months of the 2009 season, his performances grew more inconsistent over the rest of the year, and there were times at the end of the season when it seemed as though he no longer had much left in his tank.
According to RSL GM Garth Lagerwey, RSL had been working on the Mathis deal for some time.
"It's a deal that's been in the works for a while," said Lagerwey. "Clint had approached us in the offseason and said that, from a family perspective, he wanted to head back to L.A. It's where his wife's family is. They have a couple of small kids, and he felt like he had held up his end of the deal (in) contributing, helping us win a championship.
"We really want to be recognized as a player-friendly culture and a team that does the right thing. We did the right thing by a good, classy veteran player in sending him to L.A. and getting it done, and we did it in a way that helped us, too."
When it played in a 4-4-2 formation last season, the four midfield spots were primarily filled by five guys: Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Andy Williams and Mathis.
With Mathis now gone and Williams getting older, it seems quite possible that Warner could have a chance to see the field a lot during his rookie season. However, regardless of whether he plays immediately, the club said it was thrilled to acquire his services.
"We've kind of liked Collen for a while, and we knew he was gonna go trial in Europe, so we basically called him and tried to recruit him," said Lagerwey. "We said, 'Hey, we think you could play a role with this team, and if you're willing to forgo the trials and sign a (MLS) contract, than we'll take you if you're there.'
"And sure enough, that's what happened."
For his part, Warner is excited to become an RSL player.
"A lot of teams were interested in me, and I'm thrilled to be going to Real Salt Lake," he said.
Meanwhile, RSL used three other draft picks to bolster its defensive depth. Salt Lake carried just six defenders for most of last year, and Lagerwey said the club is thinking about possibly adding a seventh defender to its roster for the 2010 season.
ENDLINES: Kreis recently scouted in Argentina, and he said RSL is potentially interested in signing two players from there. He didn't say what position either of them play, but he reiterated that signing a striker to replace Yura Movsisyan remains an important objective for the club this offseason. … RSL acquired the rights to its third-round pick via a second deal with L.A. RSL sent its third-round pick for next year's draft to L.A. in exchange for L.A.'s third-round pick this year. Therefore, when you take into account the Mathis deal, the clubs wound up swapping their third-round picks for next year to one another. … Nick Cardenas, who played for the Ogden Outlaws of the PDL last summer, was taken in the third round by the Kansas City Wizards.