TAKING ONE FOR THE TEAM
Robinson’s optimism can be attributed in part to a late Oct. 26, 2008, game Real Salt Lake played at Colorado to see which team would make the Western Conference playoffs. Robinson, an apprentice brewery at Wasatch Brewery, and 20 friends followed Real to Colorado. Real played so badly, Robinson “felt terrible and embarrassed that everyone was laughing at us.” But when a shot in the 90th minute by midfielder Williams rebounded off the goalkeeper and forward Yura Movsisyan scored, Robinson was ecstatic: Real was in the playoffs.
Section 26’s leader remembers equally vividly watching a valiant Real lose the Western Conference final to an inferior New York Bulls, 1-0. “That ping sound” of Real shots ricocheting off the Bulls’ goal posts in the dying minutes made him cringe repeatedly. “It was so frustrating.”
Stunned Real fans watched players wipe away tears after the final whistle. For seconds, the sell-out crowd were silent, then they began chanting: “R-S-L, R-S-L.”
Real’s 4-1 win over 2008 MLS champions Columbus Crew in Real’s 2009 season opener at home confirmed many pundits’ speculation that Real was a serious contender for the MLS cup. Then in May, Real played seven games without a win.
“we should be running like crazy kids in a candy store. It wasn’t happening at home [against Chicago] and it should have been.”
“It was the worst experience of my life,” Kreis says. “I had so much self-doubt. I felt lost, almost depressed.” The team wasn’t doing much better. In the locker room, Kreis was thrust back to the first season, when Real “never believed in themselves. We were going into games expecting to lose.”
He could not figure out what was wrong. In despair, he’d watch some games and wonder, “Who is this team?” Many nights, if he did fall asleep, he woke up in cold sweats.
Finally he realized he hadn’t changed. He was training them the same way, being as open and honest as when he started coaching. Clearly, the first third of the season “a lot of very good players were not playing to their potential.”
Real had started the 2009 season “with too much belief,” he concluded. “Everybody liked us. I wasn’t sure how to handle that. We gained something from the us-against-theworld mentality.”
challenged his players to fight more, to take a long, hard look in the
mirror. “I’m not sleeping at night,” he told the team. “How many of you
are going to say the same?”
Kreis went back to basics, focusing especially on defense. Instead of expecting to win, they would fight from minute 1. On June 13, Real won their first away game of the season against Los Angeles Galaxy, 2-0.
If the turn-around had begun, it was still a decidedly bumpy ride. Real’s first half against FC Dallas on July 24 was, Kreis says, “the worst game I’ve ever seen.” At halftime in the locker room he screamed at the players “stuff you can’t print. I was literally going crazy.” The second half the team improved. After being 2-0 down, Real clawed back to 2-2, but Kreis wanted more. Following some questionable refereeing, Kreis says he dropped the F-bomb 14 times to officials and got himself sent off. As he hoped, his emotions spurred on the team and Real beat FC Dallas 4-2.
While the bad publicity for Kreis, a two-game suspension from the coach´s bench and a $3,000 fine stung, “I was willing to take that for the team.”
STAND UP, SIT DOWN
The Sept. 12 home game against Chicago Fire marked the beginning of Real’s 2009 push for the playoffs. If Real doesn’t make it, Lagerway says, “we’ll be seen as a flash in the pan.”
4 p.m., Real fans gathered in the tailgating parking lot on the
southwest side of the stadium. Anglo supporters drank beer and
barbecued. La Barra fans, in between eating carne asada and drinking a
few cervezas, fiddled with their instruments and went over
lyrics. La Barra, however, went sparingly on the beer, because Castro
prefers his red-andblue army filled with energy to dance
Castro, typically sporting a Bluetooth, runs a disciplined group. He fields at least 50 calls every Saturday before the game, organizing his crew, which can number anywhere from 30 to 80 people. Lieutenants run the drums and the chants, but Castro is the commander in chief.
At 6:30 p.m., La Barra Real marched to the stadium. They entered from the west to the rhythm of their drums, chanting and marching around the stadium to their seats.
26’s Mark Robinson drifted in with a friend just before the game
started, leaving behind a few members still carousing in the parking
lot. Robinson found a seat in the third row. He and many of the 60-plus
supporters loosely affiliated with Section 26 have followed Real from
its nightmarish beginnings of constant losses. In the first years, he
recalls, “[Real midfielder] Andy Williams was the only person who could
hold the ball. You hated him losing it. Who’s he going to pass to?”
Section 26’s selling point for fans is that Real usually scores in the second half, which means in front of their section. The downside of Section 26 is that other season ticket holders in the same section who aren’t members of the group get irritated by their antics. Nearby season ticket holders smiles were decidedly fixed as the first half wore on.
Standing up “is a real touchy issue,” Robinson says. “We have to be very sensitive to it.” Language apparently is another sore point. When one Section 26 fan screamed “Puto” at a Chicago player, a woman sarcastically commented on his Spanish swearing.
Section 26 tries to involve the crowd as much as they can. They put pro-Real lyrics to children’s songs, singing the melody to "If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands," but with the words, "If you want Real to score clap your hands." This proved popular with wives who attend the games with their Section 26 husbands.
“We got more [crowd] participation out of that than anything else,” Robinson says wryly.
OLAVE SAYS NO!
As the crowd’s anticipation for the game against Chicago grew, midfielder and Catholic Javier Morales crossed himself before entering the stadium. Real’s highest scorer, Robby Findley, “humility” tattooed on one hand, “loyalty” the other, experienced what every game brings him—butterflies in his stomach.
The whistle blew and Real got down to business. In the first minute, Brazilian player Pablo Campos broke through to the right of Chicago’s goal, briefly wrong-footing the goalkeeper before slamming the ball into his chest.
Fifteen minutes into the game, disaster struck. Attacking midfielder Clint Mathis limped off with a rolled ankle. Kreis told forward Findley to fill the holé while they figured out what to do. From that point, the first half went rapidly downhill.
Andy Williams had seen Real’s first-half malaise many times from the bench this season. The first half, he says, “we should be running like crazy kids in a candy store. It wasn’t happening at home [against Chicago], and it should have been.”
Kreis subbed in 24-year-old Haitian Jean Alexandre. While Mathis is a veteran playmaker, Alexandre is a play disruptor, adept at breaking up attacks by the opposition. A shy player, Kreis “badly wanted him to come out of his shell.” But while Alexandre’s defensive work was effective, neither he nor his team were playing aggressively enough through the midfield.
Chicago pressured Real’s defense, but defender Jamison Olave proved a hard man to beat. When Olave and a Chicago striker jumped for a pass into Real’s box, Olave got to the ball.
“Olave says No!” Section 26 supporters chanted.
Robinson and some of his fellow supporters berated the referee. “I’m blind, I’m deaf, I want to be a ref,” several chanted. When not heckling Chicago stars Brian McBride or Chris Rolfe, Robinson merrily heckled some of his own friends in other rows.
In the 43 rd minute, to outraged cried of handball from Real supporters and players, Rolfe thumped the ball past Real’s goalkeeper Nick Rimondo to put the visitors ahead.
Robinson wasn’t worried. “The second half is going to be good for us,” he says. “Real only scores in the north goal.”