As La Barra members pogoed in a storm of confetti, chanting “Olé, olé, olé, olé, Re-al Salt Lake,” a 14-year-old La Barra member lit an illegal smoke bomb. Real’s operations director Trino Martinez confronted the youth and told him to leave the stadium. When he refused, four Sandy cops patrolling the game took charge. One of them pushed the youth to the floor and handcuffed him. La Barra fans and passersby were furious.
A mostly Hispanic crowd of 80 angry fans according to Sandy Police spokesman Sgt. Justin Chapman, surrounded the police, who called for backup. The cops and Martinez yelled at supporters to return to their seats. One officer threatened nearby supporters with pepper spray.
Eventually, the police released the 14 year old without charge after they found out his age, and a Real employee took him home. But that did not quell the anger.
Castro, an exercise equipment company shipping manager, and his cohorts were upset at what they saw as the cops’ mishandling of the situation, and also at the failure of Real’s front-office personnel to intercede on behalf of some of their most loyal fans. When they returned to their seats for the second half, they furled their flags, put down their nine drums, cymbals and trumpet, turned off the fog machine Real loans them in place of letting them use smoke bombs and watched in near silence.
Out of the five Real-recognized supporters’ clubs, all of which receive discounted tickets, newbie La Barra, in just five months, has proven itself a very loud and ardent asset to the team. Unsurprisingly, the group´s silence in the second half against Chivas broadcast their discontent loud and clear.
A worried Real management met with La Barra on Sept. 9. Bottom line, Trino Martinez says, La Barra “wanted to feel they were being treated with respect.”
While the other fan clubs developed organically, La Barra grew out of Real reaching out to Hispanic fans at the end of 2008 to form a supporters club. Reaching out to Hispanics is crucial for Real and U.S. soccer’s future success, Real general manager Garth Lagerway says. But, Martinez asks rhetorically, “How do you bring [Hispanics] who you know are passionate about the sport to be passionate about RSL?” Bringing what Castro calls “Hispanic spice” to the stands through La Barra provides a powerful statement of the club’s multi-lingual fan base. But as the smoke bomb incident demonstrated, trying to “promote the passion that we’re looking for within certain guidelines,” as Martinez puts it, can be a tricky business.
As an organization, Real Salt Lake has advanced in 2009, even if the team on the field has not. For the first time in Utah, Real hosted the annual Major League Soccer [MLS] All-Stars game at Rio Tinto stadium, this time against the English premier league’s club Everton, along with a world cup qualifying game between the United States and El Salvador.
On the field, Real’s success has been decidedly more muted, as their 9-11-7 record this season demonstrates. In his first year and a half as Real’s coach, Jason Kreis, a former top-scoring MLS and Real player, created a team in his own image— scrappy, hard-fighting, with a never-say-die attitude. But, after a promising start to the 2009 season, Real skidded through seven games without a win. Kreis says his team bought into the pre-season hype that saw them labeled as future cup winners after making the playoffs for the first time last year. Real believed, Kreis says, “we were better than we were.”
On Sept. 12, when Real faced off at home against the Chicago Fire, they were focused on winning three points to edge them closer to the playoffs. “We’ve been in this position before,” striker Will Johnson says, referring to Real’s hard scrabble for points and luck last year. “We’re where we can’t hang our heads.”
Real Passion: Section 26
Real Passion: La Barra
Even fan favorite Andy Williams, the only surviving player from what Lagerway calls “the dark days” of the franchise’s first year, doubts his future at Real in 2010. “Especially if I’m not playing, I don’t see a reason to keep me on next year,” he says.
A year ago, Williams symbolized Real’s endurance and hope for a brighter future. His wife Marcia’s well-publicized struggles with leukemia brought an emotional intensity to the game every time he ran onto the field.
But this season, until the end of August, Williams spent a good part of most of the games on the bench. When he complained, Kreis responded he had to train harder, be more vocal on the field and add something to the game. In late summer, Williams sparked in training, Kreis says, and all of the coaching staff saw it.
Williams had played the full games in the two games prior to the Fire match, but Williams shakes his head about Kreis’ ringing praise in the press for his return to form. “I haven’t changed anything,” he says.
What has changed, at least for the fans, is expectations. In the days when John Ellinger was coach, Section 26’s amiable leader, 27-year-old Mark Robinson says, attending a Real game involved “very little hope” of the team “eeking out a win.” After last year, all that changed. “When I go to games now, I expect us to win.”
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.”
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.