KANSAS CITY, Kan.—The star atop Real Salt Lake’s crest doesn’t come with an asterisk.
Four years after Real won its first Major League Soccer Cup, it matters little that the team had a losing record, barely made the playoffs and had to win the preposterous tie-breaking game of chance that is a soccer shoot-out in order to lift the trophy.
All that matters is that star.
And, in the long run, when it comes to the contest played on Dec. 7 between two shivering soccer teams and before 21,650 frozen fans, all that matters is that Sporting Kansas City won its second star and Real Salt Lake didn’t.
In this moment, though—and at least until March 8, when Salt Lake opens its 10th season against the Los Angeles Galaxy—this caveat is in order: Salt Lake should never have been here in the first place.
Nor should it have been in the U.S. Open Cup championship on Oct. 1. Nor should it have come so close to winning the Supporters’ Shield, which is given to the team with the best regular-season record.
No, Real Salt Lake didn’t lift any of those trophies. And no, there are no stars for those who come close.
This year, Real won nothing but respect.
But next year, results like this won’t even merit that. Because next year, even without departed coach Jason Kreis, RSL will be on the short list of teams expected to win it all.
That’s no easy order, of course.
“I think it’s tough for a lot of people to understand just how hard it is to win a championship,” midfielder Ned Grabavoy said, minutes after watching Sporting’s fans erupt in celebration over their team’s 7-6 shootout victory. “And the most difficult thing to swallow for us right now is knowing how hard it is—and knowing that we might not ever be back here.”
But on the other hand, Grabavoy said, “It’s going to be harder to convince anyone that we shouldn’t be here, right here, next year.”
What a difference 10 months makes. Back in February, no one was talking about championships. Rather, there was a pretty significant effort afoot to play down expectations.
After shedding three of the team’s marquee players—Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson—general manager Garth Lagerwey had begun piecing together one of the youngest rosters in the league.
The new team was ripe with potential but short on experience.
Luis Gil, Joao Plata, Sebastian Velasquez, Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia were all expected to start games, score goals and win championships.
But for this season, Lagerwey warned, a good result would be just making the playoffs.
A classic rope-a-dope? Perhaps. But that trick only works once.
In 2014, the task will be to get a team that is used to exceeding low expectations to meet high ones.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem with this group of guys,” defender Chris Wingert said. “There are a lot of young guys on this team who still have a lot they want to prove.”
By virtue of the team’s pre-season shakeup, national team duties and injuries, those young players have also had a better-than-usual opportunity to play together.
As national team duties drew away much of what was left of the veteran core—captain Kyle Beckerman, defender Tony Beltran and goalkeeper Nick Rimando all spent considerable time away from the club to train and play with the U.S. men’s squad, while Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio missed a number of matches for service with the Ticos—the younger players, who in another season might have competed to come in as substitutes, were making regular appearances in the starting 11.
Other teams were facing the same situation, of course. But having invested thickly in future all-stars rather than thinly in current ones, RSL was in better shape to weather the challenge. That meant extra experience for players who were picked up not as inexpensive fillers who would fit snugly under the salary cap, but as RSL’s team of the future. Twenty-eight players started regular-season games for Real Salt Lake in 2013. Eighteen of them got 900 or more minutes on the pitch—the equivalent of 10 full games each.
And by virtue of its ascension through both the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup, RSL’s players collectively had more field time than any other team in the league.
Even the immense question that hung over most of the 2013 season—Will Jason Kreis leave?—might have left RSL in better position to compete in 2014 and beyond.
Whether by gross negligence or the simple struggles of a change in ownership, Salt Lake’s new sole proprietor, Dell Loy Hansen, let the season begin without securing Kreis’ services for 2014. Early into 2013, it was clear that RSL’s first star player and most successful coach—a man whose jersey number has already been retired by the club—might slip away. And, by mid-season, the conventional wisdom was that Kreis was all but on his way to the expansion New York City FC.
“We certainly hoped that he’d stay,” defender Nat Borchers said. “But everybody knows that Jason is an ambitious guy and nobody would blame him for reaching for the next level.”
What that meant in the locker room and on the field was that developing players—who might otherwise be competing for their coach’s attention—weren’t fighting to prove themselves to Kreis, but rather to the people who were most likely to be around in another year’s time.
“It was a special thing,” Borchers said. “You know, I’ve never been a part of a group that is more together than this group.”
“It’s been like a group of brothers,” Velasquez added. “We fought for each other and backed each other up in every situation. I don’t think that is something that’s going to change.”
Neither does Kreis, who indeed is leaving RSL for New York City FC, as announced just three days after the team's loss in Kansas City.
Change, Kreis said after that game, is inevitable in soccer.
And regardless of what happens in his future, Kreis said, “I don’t think this team is going to be thrown asunder or that there will be changes in any large way. They’ve been too successful to do anything else.”
It’s going to have to be. Because next year, there will be no asterisks, no caveats, and no excuses.
Next year, Real should win it all.
Matthew D. LaPlante is a professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Utah State University.