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Sports >  National sports

Move to Spokane helped spark career in pro soccer for Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel

June 7, 2019 Updated Fri., June 7, 2019 at 6:43 p.m.

Lewis and Clark High School alum Craig Waibel (16), who played 12 seasons of professional soccer, has served as Real Salt Lake general manager since 2015. (Courtesy of Real Salt Lake)
Lewis and Clark High School alum Craig Waibel (16), who played 12 seasons of professional soccer, has served as Real Salt Lake general manager since 2015. (Courtesy of Real Salt Lake)
By Luke Byrnes The Spokesman-Review

It isn’t often that someone credits moving to Spokane for his successes later in life.

For Craig Waibel, a 1994 graduate of Lewis and Clark High School, relocating to the Lilac City helped pave his path to a career in professional soccer.

“For me, moving to Spokane was huge,” Waibel, the general manager of Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake, said.

Born in Portland, Waibel moved to Coeur d’Alene before his family settled in Spokane when he was in eighth grade.

“In Coeur d’Alene there was one team, at my age, in terms of traveling soccer, so that was the team you played for,” Waibel said. “When I moved to Spokane, there were five, six, seven teams at that time and all of a sudden I was on a team that traveled to Seattle.

“They obviously had more consistent competition on the other side of the mountains, and that exposure kind of sparked the interest in me and I stuck with it.”

Waibel was a three-time, first-team All-Greater Spokane League pick for LC before becoming a four-year letterman at the University of Washington, where he was a two-time captain, earned all-conference and all-region honors and helped the Huskies to a No. 1 ranking during the 1997 season.

He was selected in the first round of the 1999 pro draft and made his Major League Soccer debut in 2000. Waibel went on to win four MLS Cup titles with the Los Angeles Galaxy (2002), San Jose Earthquakes (2003) and Houston Dynamo (2006 and 2007) during his 12-year playing career.

But the move to Spokane wasn’t the only thing that spurred his long, and continuing, career in professional soccer.

“I’ve always been quietly and naturally competitive,” said Waibel, who signed a multiyear contract extension with RSL in December.

Considered a journeyman early in his career – the defender made just 23 combined appearances in his first three MLS seasons and finished with seven career goals – Waibel was known for his toughness and perseverance,which led to his becoming a fan favorite in Houston.

In 2005, he suffered a gruesome, career-threatening knee injury which Dynamo trainer Bruce Morgan told the Houston Chronicle, “stands alone as the most significant” in franchise history.

Waibel battled through a rigorous rehabilitation and had a career year in 2006, playing 2,401 minutes in 28 appearances, all starts, and scoring five goals while helping Houston to the first of back-to-back MLS Cup titles.

In 2012, when the club opened its new BBVA Compass Stadium, Waibel was immortalized, along with other members of the franchise, among the 16 pillars around the stadium.

“I come by my competitiveness very honestly,” he said. “Anything from board games to tennis, growing up in my household, when you beat my mom, you finally beat her – and I don’t think that happened at anything until my teenage years.”

The competition and athletic talent were rampant in the family. Waibel’s older brother Mario played professional lacrosse and his twin brother Chad was a three-sport letterman at LC.

“(Chad) and I competed every day when we lived together,” Craig said. “Everything we did was a competition.

“The balance in the way we approached sports came from our dad and mom, because they were always reminding us to look at sports as not only an activity but as a problem to solve. How do you solve the problem of creating space on the football field, soccer field, basketball court?

“At the end of the day, we were never judged by our mother and father based on results. We were judged on our competitiveness, our approach and our sportsmanship – values that we didn’t even know we were being raised with. That’s why we’ve fallen in love with giving back to the game.”

Mario has been coaching lacrosse for the better part of two decades and Chad is living in Croatia, where he coaches American football. Craig, a long-time coach at the college level, moved from the sideline to the front office in 2015.

“I coached camps all summer throughout college and coached teams when I played professionally,” Waibel said.“When I finished (playing), I knew (coaching) was the right thing to stay in.”

In 2011, he became a men’s assistant coach at the University of Michigan before returning to UW in 2012.

In two seasons with the Huskies, he helped them to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (including their first since 2007) and was named the 2008 National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Far West Regional Assistant Coach if the Year.

In 2014, he became an assistant coach for RSL before being named the club’s technical director – helping the team with player identification and working with domestic and international player agents – in 2015 and moving into the role of general manager the following year.

“At the end of 2014, our general manager left and I got a phone call saying the owner and the president at the time wanted to meet with me, which in sports means you’re getting fired,” Waibel said. “I walked out of the meeting with the owner offering me a front-office position.

“Had I thought about (moving into the front office)? Yeah. Had I ever expressed that out loud? Absolutely not. I was in my first year as a professional coach but I thought, over time, that this was a challenge I’d enjoy.”

Real Salt Lake has increased its win total in each of Waibel’s three seasons as GM while making two MLS Cup playoff appearances. As the 2019 season nears its midway point, RSL sits in the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.

With his recent contract extension, Waibel appears to have some job security in a profession that typically offers little. But don’t expect that to change the competitive nature with which he approaches his work and life.

“Naturally, competition involves opponents but, in my mind, my first competitor was myself,” he said.

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