Monday, November 8, 2010
Real Salt Lake: How did RSL go from inconsistent to winning a championship?
(by Dan Rasmussen desnews.com 11-30-09)
Throughout the majority of Real Salt Lake's 2009 season, there were few indications of what was going to eventually happen to the fifth-year MLS Club.
On one hand, it was pretty apparent RSL had the potential to be a very good side. On any given Saturday inside Rio Tinto Stadium this year, Salt Lake could play outstanding soccer against almost anyone and win convincingly.
But on the other hand, RSL could be maddeningly inconsistent.
Salt Lake almost always struggled on the road, and as the season wore along, it seemed as though the club quite simply wasn't going to be able to put it all together.
But then a funny thing happened — RSL became the team it was capable of becoming.
After scraping into the MLS Cup playoffs in the final week of October, Real Salt Lake was simply phenomenal down the stretch.
Piecing everything together at exactly the right moment, RSL was the better team in each of its four playoff games, and the end product was an MLS Cup for Salt Lake and Utah's first major professional championship in almost 40 years.
Those four matches will be remembered in club history forever, but here's a complete look back at how RSL actually got there, as well as what happened when it did.
0-1-0, 0 points
The message from RSL coach Jason Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey throughout the offseason was one of stability.
Having advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2008 with an up-and-coming club, Kreis and Lagerwey determined they could find even more success in 2009 by sticking with their core group of players.
Accordingly, RSL largely stood pat during the offseason, with midfield enforcer Dema Kovalenko and striker Kenny Deuchar the most notable departures (striker Fabian Espindola also left the club during the offseason but later returned) and Ned Grabavoy the most notable addition.
On the heels of a pretty successful preseason, RSL had to wait an extra week to kick off its season with an opening weekend bye.
One week later, RSL began its 2009 campaign on the road to Seattle, where the club took on the Sounders in front of 28,548 frenzied fans inside Qwest Field.
It proved to be a somewhat inauspicious beginning, as RSL fell 2-0 to Seattle.
Real actually outplayed Seattle for large stretches of the match, particularly in the second half. However, after falling behind 1-0 early on, Salt Lake never could quite find an equalizer, and it was made to pay when hot-shot youngster Fredy Montero sealed the points with a goal in the 77th minute.
3-1-0, 9 points
Throughout the offseason, RSL talked and talked and talked about getting off to a good start.
After all, the club got off to a poor start in each of its previous four years of existence.
So even though RSL dropped its opener, it was still determined to get off on the right foot, especially inside pristine Rio Tinto Stadium.
As it played out, RSL got off to a decent start in 2009 — it was arguably a good start by the previous standards of the club.
Salt Lake opened its home schedule on a Thursday-night ESPN2 game against Columbus, and RSL showed the national-television audience just how lethal it could be at home.
Robbie Findley, who went on to enjoy a fabulous season, put RSL up 1-0 in just the second minute, and while Jason Garey equalized for the defending MLS champs 20 minutes later, RSL pounded home three more goals over the final 70 minutes to win convincingly.
Findley finished with RSL's first MLS hat-trick in club history in what was clearly a sign of things to come.
Nine days later, RSL edged defensive-minded D.C. United, 2-1, to move to 2-1 in the young season, and the rest of April played out as some would have expected — even if wasn't quite what Real would've hoped for.
RSL fell 2-0 to New York on the road, but it confirmed its home dominance with an overpowering 6-0 win over New England in its final MLS match of the month. Six different RSL players scored goals in the rout, with Clint Mathis' spectacular volley the pick of an outstanding bunch of goals.
Mathis, for his part, was outstanding for RSL throughout the first few months of the 2009 season.
At the end of April, RSL's U.S. Open Cup run ended before it ever began, as Salt Lake fell 4-1 to Seattle on the road.
With the success RSL had enjoyed early on, however, losing in the Open Cup didn't seem to have been too big of a deal at the time.
What happened in May, though, was certainly cause for concern.
0-4-2, 2 points
With six league matches on tap in the months of May and August, it was obvious from the beginning that both of those months were going to be crucial for RSL.
When it came to May, however, Salt Lake simply wasn't good enough.
With four of those six league matches on the road, emerging from May with a high point total was never going to be easy, but Real sputtered and sputtered en route to earning just two points for the entire month.
RSL began the month of May with an away game against archrival Colorado, looking to finally break through on the road and earn at least a point away from Rio Tinto Stadium.
Um, yeah, didn't work out that way.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando was lost to a nasty hand injury in the 35th minute against Colorado, and RSL went on to lose 2-0.
Things were supposed to get better when Los Angeles came to town four days later, but RSL instead gave up a stoppage-time goal to Mike Magee to finish in a 2-2 draw.
Magee's goal capped a wild late sequence in extra time, which saw RSL cough up an equalizer, score a goal to momentarily surge back ahead and then give up another equalizer to share the points.
It was a sign of how the rest of the month was going to go.
RSL's final four games in May went as follows: at Chivas, 1-0 loss; vs. Kansas City, 2-0 loss; at D.C. United, 0-0 draw, and at San Jose, 2-1 loss.
Of those four results, by far the worst one was the Kansas City defeat at home.
2-0-2, 8 points
The month of June didn't begin the way RSL would've wanted it to, but the club nonetheless got some significant results in the month, results which proved invaluable at the end of the season.
In the beginning, though, Real's league winless streak reached an alarming seven games, as it finished in a 1-1 draw at home to Colorado in the second of three meetings between the two rivals.
Yura Movsisyan, who had been desperately unlucky at times during the season up to that point, appeared to have given RSL all three points when he scored in the 79th minute. The lead didn't last, however, as Omar Cummings equalized with two minutes to go.
Arguably a watershed moment occurred, though, for RSL in its next league match seven days later.
Up to that point, Real had been winless in six road matches — seven if you include the U.S. Open Cup — but the club finally broke through on the road with a 2-0 win over L.A.
Movsisyan scored to put RSL ahead in the 13th minute, and defender Nat Borchers doubled RSL's lead early in the second half.
Real followed up that result with a hard-fought 1-1 draw on the road against Houston (defender Jamison Olave was red-carded and RSL played with 10 men for most of the second half) and then beat Toronto 3-0 at home.
All in all, those eight points from four matches proved to be extremely valuable at the end of the regular season.
1-1-1, 4 points
One step forward, two steps back.
That's what the month of July felt like for RSL, as it struggled to build on the momentum it created in June. Because of the way the schedule set up, Salt Lake only had three league matches in the month of July, with six to follow in August.
One day before the Fourth of July, RSL tripped up against San Jose in its first match of the month.
Salt Lake fell behind, 1-0, when Arturo Alvarez netted for San Jose in the 63th minute. Playing with 10 men, however, because of an Espindola red card, RSL earned a point via a San Jose own goal in the 91st minute.
Following an encouraging exhibition win over Club America, RSL fell 3-1 to Columbus on the road before returning to beat Dallas, 4-2, at home.
In what was one of the more memorable regular-season games in club history, RSL fell behind Dallas 2-0 in the first half before roaring back after halftime.
Movsisyan got things going with a goal in the 55th minute, and Real found the back of the net three more times over the final half hour to win a game that had just about everything.
Off the field, RSL news in early July was dominated by the status of Movsisyan, who signed a pre-contract with Randers FC of Denmark. With his contract in MLS set to expire at the end of the season, there was much speculation that MLS would cut a deal to send him to Randers at that point.
The two sides couldn't come to an agreement, however, and Movsisyan wound up staying through the end of the season. Movsisyan struggled on the pitch for a while after signing his deal with Randers, but he wound up being an indispensable part of RSL's playoff run.
3-2-1, 10 points
Three days after the MLS All-Star game was held inside Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL played on the road against Chicago in what many believed could be the first of six defining matches.
After all, Salt Lake would only have six more league matches after August, and it needed to rack up lots of points this month before having to sit around for stretches of September and October.
As it played out, RSL did OK in the month of August — not great but not bad.
With one notable exception, RSL's season-long form held true in August — the club won its games at home and lost on the road.
RSL opened August with a 1-0 loss at Chicago but returned home seven days later and beat Seattle by the same scoreline.
One week later, though, RSL ultimately couldn't punch through at home against Houston in a 0-0 draw that many believed could derail Salt Lake's playoff hopes.
RSL was playing with a man advantage after Houston's Andrew Hainault was red-carded in the 30th minute, but a moment of madness by Mathis nullified that advantage, as he was given a second yellow card for dissent in first-half stoppage time.
Neither team managed a goal in 10 vs. 10 soccer in the second half.
RSL then fell on the road to New England, 3-1, before closing the month with back-to-back wins.
The first one, a 4-0 home victory over Chivas, was expected. The second one, a 1-0 road victory over Kansas City, wasn't.
Recent acquisition Pablo Campos found the back of the net early in the first half against the Wizards, and RSL played composed soccer the rest of the way to get three huge points, despite playing a man down for the entire second half.
0-2-1, 1 point
Because the club only had three matches to play in September, all of them were of extreme importance. Unfortunately for RSL, it failed to win in any of them, leaving its playoff hopes in dire straits.
RSL didn't play until the 12th of September, at home to Chicago, but it misfired its way to a 1-1 draw.
On this occasion, Chicago's Chris Rolfe opened the scoring in the 44th minute before Olave salvaged a draw with a perfectly-placed goal in the 72nd minute.
Back-to-back road games ensued, but RSL failed to take points from any of them.
The first one, an away trip to Houston seven days after the Chicago draw, was always going to be a difficult one. While RSL had drawn with Houston in Houston earlier in the year, the perennial contenders are always tough, and the Dynamo had too much firepower for RSL in what was a 3-2 Houston win.
One week later, RSL believed perhaps its best chance to break through on the road would come at Dallas.
Jeff Cunningham, the former RSL striker who did not get along with Kreis, scored twice and led the way for Dallas to pull out a 3-0 victory over RSL.
The match left Salt Lake's playoff hopes dangling by a thread.
2-1-0, 6 points
1-0-0 in the MLS Cup Playoffs
The final two matches in October (a regular-season win over Colorado and a postseason win over Columbus) are the ones that RSL fans will remember most from this month.
But before either of them happened, RSL had to win its first match of October against New York.
In what was another nationally televised affair, Real was locked in a 0-0 game against the only MLS team it had never beaten.
RSL wouldn't have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with a loss, but realistically it would've been.
With the minutes ticking along, however, Andy Williams delivered the goods to save RSL.
His volley in the 80th minute put RSL ahead 1-0, and Espindola clinched the 2-0 win with a goal 10 minutes later.
Of course, things got awfully tricky for RSL after that clutch win.
Salt Lake fell on the road to Toronto, 1-0, three days later, and it needed a bunch of things to happen on the final weekend of the regular season to get into the playoffs.
There were a myriad of playoff scenarios, but the clearest route for RSL to get into the postseason involved the club beating Colorado and then having three of four other teams all not win.
That's precisely what happened, and RSL performed majestically against Colorado to hold up its end of the bargain.
Findley scored twice and Movsisyan added another to give RSL a 3-0 win in what was one of the finest performances in club history. Salt Lake simply won battles all over the field to best Colorado and retain the Rocky Mountain Cup.
And when it was confirmed later in the night that other results had gone RSL's way, the club was headed back to the postseason.
Real drew defending champ Columbus in the opening round, with the first of the home-and-home matches to be played at Rio Tinto Stadium on Halloween.
Columbus coach Robert Warzycha surprisingly opted to leave reigning MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto on the bench, and the Crew played defensive-minded soccer throughout the first leg.
RSL, for its part, wasn't great in the first half, but chugged and chugged and eventually got a late goal to win.
That strike came via a superb linkup between Findley and Movsisyan in the 88th minute, with Findley slotting the ball home to propel RSL to a 1-0 win heading back to Columbus.
3-0-0 in the Playoffs
RSL played three matches in the month of November, and all three will be remembered by fans for years to come.
Entering the first one, an Eastern Conference semifinal at Columbus, RSL was cautiously optimistic. (RSL was seeded in the Eastern Conference because it finished below the top four teams in the Western Conference.) Salt Lake had been the better team in the first leg, it was taking a 1-0 aggregate lead back to Columbus and it was facing a side that had been struggling offensively.
Over the first half hour, however, those facts mattered very little. Columbus scored to go up 2-0 in the 35th minute, and it seemed that RSL was going to be headed out of the playoffs.
At any other point in its history, RSL would've lost this road game.
But the club searched deep within itself and pulled out something special.
Javier Morales pulled a goal back almost immediately, and when Findley converted a penalty kick just before halftime to level the score at 2-2 (3-2 for RSL on aggregate), you got the feeling that everything could be coming together for Salt Lake.
Andy Williams sealed the semifinal series with a third RSL goal in the 74th minute, as RSL went on to win the game 3-2 and the series 4-2.
In the Eastern Conference finals, RSL drew Chicago on the road.
While Chicago had hardly been a stellar home team in 2009, the Fire were considered by many the favorite.
But over what proved to be 120 minutes of soccer, RSL never played like an underdog. Real's midfield controlled large portions of the conference final, as Salt Lake played very well but struggled to get the ball in the back of the net.
The game finished in a 0-0 draw through regulation and two overtimes, with a shootout required to determine the winner.
When that happened, Rimando lived up to his billing as a fabulous shootout 'keeper as he saved three penalties to propel RSL to MLS Cup.
After a week of hype and hoopla, MLS Cup kicked off eight days later inside Qwest Field between RSL and Los Angeles.
With stars David Beckham and Landon Donovan in tote, many believed L.A. would hoist the MLS Cup at the end of the night. And when Magee put the Galaxy up 1-0 in the 41st minute, it seemed that script was unfolding.
But RSL refused to let it happen.
Real played like champions in the second half and got back on level terms in the 64th minute when Findley scored after a scramble in front of goal.
From there, RSL largely controlled possession and had the majority of the game's chances. Neither team, however, found the back of the net, and was the case in RSL's conference final, the match headed to a shootout.
The lottery event proved to be a seesaw affair, with seven rounds of shooters required to decide MLS Cup.
In the seventh round, though, Rimando came up with his second save of the shootout, and Robbie Russell subsequently stepped up and drilled the game-winning penalty into the net.
In that moment, a season filled largely with frustration finished with pure joy and elation for RSL.