Real Salt Lake has this knack of making themselves the underdog. In doing such, they suddenly find that switch that turns themselves into a very dangerous team. In 2013, the talk was that RSL’s run as an elite was coming to an end. At the end of the 2012 season, they shipped out many starters that forced many to consider that RSL was going into rebuild form. RSL found themselves in the MLS Cup Finals.
2014 starts and we have a new coach. Long gone is our most successful manager, Jason Kreis. His right hand man, Jeff Cassar, has taken over coaching the club. And the fans showed their instant support. The critics started talking about how the team was going to need to take a step back, how the “Mastermind of the Diamond” leaving for New York City’s Football Club would be the end of RSL’s time as an unstoppable force and constant threat.
Amid all this, RSL has 15+ wins and 50 points for a 5th straight year, and look to be headed to the playoffs for a 7th straight season.
This season was a season of shock and awe for RSL. It wasn’t until the 12th game of the season that RSL finally lost a match. Big wins included the LA Galaxy and the preseason paper champions Toronto FC. The team even went into Houston and knocked the Texas monkey off their back with their 1st win in club history at Houston.
Finally the World Cup caught up to Real Salt Lake. Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando left the team to represent the United States at the World Cup. Alvaro Saborio left to represent Costa Rica, but during training suffered a foot injury that kept him out for most of the MLS season. RSL suffered their first loss of the season against Seattle while 3 of their starters were away; a 4-0 loss.
Once Beckerman and Rimando returned, RSL returned to their winning ways. After dropping 3 of 4 during the World Cup, RSL would get points in 13 of their final 18 matches, including 9 wins. Of the 5 losses, only 1 came against a team that wasn’t in the playoff hunt.
RSL has proven to be a model of consistency and a team that can find talent that instantly comes in and gels with the rest of the squad. During the off-season, the team secured a contract with midfielder Luke Mulholland. Mulholland instantly came in and became a starter and provided the future of RSL’s midfield diamond along with USMNT U-20 Captain Luis Gil.
Then in an uncharacteristic move by RSL, the team went out at the International Transfer Window in August. Sebastian Jaime transferred to RSL from the Chilean Primera Division club Union Española. The team paid a seven-figure transfer fee to fill up the 3rd and final Designated Player spot. It was a different approach from past RSL deals, because they spent a large amount of money on a player unknown to most of MLS.
“We think this is the beginning of our ascension into becoming a mid-market team,” Garth Lagerwey told RSL fans. “There are a number of teams in our league that couldn’t have made this deal. This is a sign of how far we’ve come.”
And it was true. By making small trades like taking on Joao Plata. Plata was looking like a bust after 2 years in Toronto FC. With only 3 goals in 36 appearances, RSL traded away a 2015 MLS SuperDraft 2nd round pick to Toronto. This is now looking like a huge steal: 15 goals in 47 appearances and a dark horse for most of the year to win the MLS MVP award. After the injury to Saborio, Plata took the attacking duties on his shoulder and ran with it.
RSL made it a knack of finding the ultimate team players. The guys they traded for or brought in during Kreis’s time were the guys who could play multiple positions and worried more about the name on the front of the jersey than the name on the back. The ground work was set up to allow numerous CONCACAF Champion League appearances, 7 straight years of playoff appearances and 2 MLS Cup match ups. The team took the step to becoming a mid-market team with now having the financial backing of the owners and the body of work to build a fan base.
And now, the team battles its way for playoff positioning. They have to scoreboard watch to see where they play next week. It is possible that the team has to play in the one game play in game, but you can tell from this team that they are gearing themselves as the underdog anywhere the chips fall. If RSL has taught us anything, this team is most dangerous when they find themselves being counted out.