After the referee blew the final whistle on last night's grinding 1-0 defeat of Real Salt Lake at the hands of Mexico's Monterrey in the CONCACAF final, the capacity Real crowd fled their seats.
What they missed was the remnants of a team staring defeat in the face. Midfielder Javier Morales sat on the field, his arms around his legs, staring in disbelief, oblivious, it seemed, even to the consolation offered by his friend and much-missed fellow midfielder Kyle Beckerman, out of the game because of a yellow card from the previous crunching encounter with Monterrey in the first leg of the final.
When it came time for the runners-up to collect their medals on the hastily erected stand, the RSL players trooped by officials, each one whipping off the medallion from around their neck as if it burned them. Coach Jason Kreis, however, smoothed it down on his chest with the same pressing, almost angst-ridden attention to detail many admire about him.
As Real's players stood and watched the winning team hoist the CONCACAF cup on Sandy's soil, it was Kreis who drew the eye. He stood there, ramrod-straight, staring up at the disappointment as if it were a blinding sun he could not turn away from. You could feel from yards away his determination to not flinch before a victory that, while technically deserved--Real failed painfully to capitalize on any of its chances on goal--lacked the spirit of what makes soccer great. The minutes one Monterrey player wasted lying on his back while claiming cramp was as irksome to watch as it was testimony, it might be argued, to the visitors' less than respectful attitude to the home side.
Without Beckerman's magic chemistry in midfield, Real seemed to not add up to the sum of its parts. For all the vaunted depth of talent Kreis has built up, last night that same depth could not provide anything close to a finish. And yet it was impossible to ignore the sheer size of Real's achievements, of how far the team of Kreis' scrappers have come in these last two years.
As ragged and raw as Real seemed at times last night, in the dregs of defeat the heart of the team was still on display, whether it was a shirtless Nat Borchers embracing disconsolately fans in the south end of the stand or Chris Wingert applauding Real's supporters.
Only Saturday's game against the Portland Timbers will tell if tonight will remain only a painful memory of what might have been or the beginning of new problems for the team that over the last 37 matches on its own turf could do no wrong.