On the east side of the stadium, La Barra’s halftime moshpit party was in full swing. A square of onlookers cordoned them off under a concrete overhang. Police stood nearby.
“We love Real,” Castro says. “We feel for Real.”
La Barra is a different world from the days when Castro watched Real play on his own. Then he would scream in excitement, only for less-impassioned spectators nearby to ask, “What’s wrong with you? Are you OK?”
Real has seen Argentine imports come and go. Coach Jason Kreis has tested a number of players from Buenos Aires in attempts to inject some South American fluidity and stylish passing into American soccer’s rough and tumble style. Morales and forward Fabian Espindola have stayed the course, joined recently by another Argentine import, Nelson Gonzalez.
Morales displays a maturity of ball control and insight into the game that can make him glorious to watch. Indeed, if Andy Williams is the emotional heart of the team, then Morales is its elegance. He is the architect of many of its buildups to goals, and has an ability to read the game when distributing the ball that colleagues such as Robbie Findley admire.
“I look for where we can enter,” Morales says, “where we can hurt [the opposing team] and those on our side who are doing well.”
Because of his success in 2008, opposing teams have gone out of their way to beat Morales down this season.
“He’s the most fouled player in the league,” general manager Garth Lagerway says.
Morales came to the United States in August, 2007, speaking little English. Two years later, Kreis describes him as a “social catalyst.” He’s bonded with captain Kyle Beckerman, even doing a series of web skits called The Kyle and Javi Show where they lampoon their respective cultures.
Morales says that much like Real this year, he has lacked the intensity he had in 2008. “Maybe I didn’t help this year as much as I could have,” he says. Ask him why, he says testily, “Because it’s a sport, it’s futbol. It’s not math.”
Castro’s insistence on loyalty to Real has led to tension when teams visit from abroad, particularly Mexico. When Mexican super-team Club América came for a friendly match on July 11, Castro laid down the law. Although a third of his group grew up América supporters, “this section supports Real,” he told them. Members who turned up in América shirts were sent away.
Along with Mexicans, La Barra includes fans from El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, and Spain, and a sprinkling of Anglos. While the latter usually don’t understand Spanish, they manage the chants.
La Barra members have suffered for their passion. Opposing fans have thrown rocks and fireworks at them. Other Real supporters have screamed abuse and flipped them off for singing to encourage Real when it is losing. Castro says Anglos don’t understand. “You support your team, no matter what.”
There was also initially suspicion about La Barra among other Real supporters, such as Robinson. “We thought they were a front office tool.”
Back in La Barra’s stands, Castro’s men picked up their drums and looked out across the field as Real huddled for a pep talk and Chicago’s players took their positions seconds before the whistle to start the second half. An excited Castro stood legs astride next to an enormous drum as one member hammered out the hypnotic beat of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ “El Matador.”
Even as the starting whistle faded, a galvanized Real Salt Lake focused on driving the ball into Chicago’s half. “You can sense it,” Williams says about Real’s sudden burst of second-half energy. “It’s like everybody got an extra shot of Jack in the locker room. They’re all buzzed up and ready to go.”
Kreis replaced Campos with Yura Movsisyan at the start of the second half to get a more aggressive look to the front line. Campos “wasn’t playing as hard as he had” in his previous two games when he’d scored two game-winning goals, Kreis says. With Movsisyan, “we had some speed on top,” striker Robbie Findley says. “Their defenders were running back, they were playing defensively. We were winning balls in their half.”
Alexandre was subbed out for All-Star midfielder Javier Morales on the 62nd minute. “You always want to bring in [Morales] if you need goals,” Kreis says. While Kreis didn’t want to sub out Alexandre, having subbed him into the game in the first half, it was either that or lose Williams.
In the 71st minute, Williams justified Kreis’ faith. He kicked what Williams calls, borrowing from basketball, an “alley-oop” dunk. The 50-yard pass dropped in front of Olave, who hit a perfect running volley into the right side of the net.
La Barra exploded. A dozen supporters unfurled an enormous Real flag and held it up above them like a canopy. Beneath the flag, blue and white smoke from the fog machine seethed around the heaving cauldron of bodies dancing with joy on the seats. At the other end of the stadium, three Section 26 supporters raced along the north end behind the goal, waving Real flags.
As the last minutes of the second half ticked away, La Barra’s drums and trumpet fell silent, but their singing continued. The supporters roared with disbelief as shot after shot from Real midfielders and attackers across the Chicago goal failed to find a Real player to kick it in.
The players were equally frustrated. “We didn’t have guys crashing into the box,” striker Will Johnson says. “That little extra wasn’t there.” Players “weren’t willing to put their bodies in harm´s way to score goals,” Kreis concludes. Regardless, La Barra sang on: “Olé, olé, olé, olé, Re-al Salt Lake.” As if on the bow of a ship surging into a storm, Castro and his crew stood on their seats, their arms held high, willing the ball into the back of Chicago’s net.
In the final minute Movsisyan trapped the ball, turned on a dime and shot a blistering drive that hammered off the left post and away from the goal.
The whistle blew. Smoke from the fog machine drifted across the field. Real had salvaged a draw on their own turf.
HOME OF THE BRAVE
As Castro cleaned up La Barra’s seats, he said Real’s performance was better than losing. “You protect your home,” he says. “You don’t let anybody come and win here.”
An Anglo Larry H. Miller executive gave his card to Castro as he left, asking for season tickets next year in La Barra´s section. Anglos want to join them, Castro says, giving up their food and drink to sing and dance through the game. “They see the way we live soccer, the way we enjoy it.” In the tailgating car park, Section 26’s Robinson was sanguine. “We had them on the ropes in the second half, but we couldn’t get it done.”
Real´s next two games against Dallas and Houston saw its sleepy defense concede early goals. While Real fought back against Houston, they still lost 3-2, and they had no answer for FC Dallas, which won 3-0. Now Real have a two week hiatus before their final three games, which they must win to make the playoffs. Kreis faces the daunting task of turning an increasingly adrift Real around. The future of the team he built, and even perhaps his tenure as coach, may well be on the line.
"We´ll find out a lot of what we´re made of in the next two weeks," general manager Lagerway says.
With Real´s dismally unpredictable performance this season, the only constant, it might be argued, is the passion of their fans.
Driving past the stadium a few days after the Chicago game, the refrain of “Olé, olé, olé, olé, Re-al Salt Lake” still vibrates in the air.
General manager Lagerway calls the stadium “a cathedral to soccer.” But for fans like Mark Robinson and Luis Castro, whose eyes shine with passion for Real whether they’re winning or losing, the stadium is arguably something far more personal.