By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 1, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Redemption stories require failure to work. It’s one of the basic elements need to make the narrative possible. Without failure, there is no redemption. The trick lies in framing just what constitutes failure in the first place.
Two years ago, Real Salt Lake came within minutes of winning Major League Soccer’s first continental championship in the current tournament format. Their success was unprecedented, their run surprising if only because MLS faces so many disadvantages - particularly the timing of the knockout rounds during the MLS preseason - in the region’s biggest club competition.
By making the final of the 2010-11 edition, Real Salt Lake seemed to prove that it was possible for an American club to take on the Mexican powerhouses and have a legitimate chance at winning. RSL even managed to garner support from disparate and rival quarters, helped by some League promotion, via the #MLS4RSL hashtag on Twitter. RSL’s run went beyond mere club glory. It reflected on the League as a whole and meshed with the spirit of Don Garber’s repeated desire to get an MLS team to the Club World Cup.
Losing that final to Monterrey - with their deeper roster, their bigger payroll, and their established name - was only a failure for RSL in the technical sense. Every step past the group stage was a victory. Finishing second hardly deflated the sense of accomplishment at all. Certainly, RSL would be back, putting everything they have into another shot at the title. The new seriousness with which RSL treated the tournament was the overriding legacy of their run.
Does that mean RSL’s return to the competition, after a year away, represents a chance for redemption?
It does for Real Salt Lake, even if the rest of us might not view it in exactly that light. The window is rapidly closing on Jason Kreis’s team as currently constructed, with several of the most important players on the far side of 30. While the League championship remains obviously important, Real Salt Lake is perhaps the only club in MLS who preaches the preeminence of the CONCACAF competition. Ultimately, of course, talk is cheap. It’s actions that matter.
Kreis rolled out his first choice lineup last night in Costa Rica for RSL’s opening group game against Herediano, only the second time he’s had that luxury in 2012. Consistency cuts both ways for this club. On the one hand, the core of the team (Rimando, Borchers, Olave, Beckerman, Espindola et. al.) has been together for five years, a veritable eternity at this level. On the other, five years in, age and injuries have taken their toll and limited the time that the team on the field is the absolute best Real Salt Lake has to offer.
RSL’s depth is a marvel, rightly identified as one of their hallmarks over the last few years. Yet, the constant shifting of players (including covering for playmaker Javier Morales who missed a year with an ankle injury) makes it all the more difficult to live up to lofty expectations.
It didn’t go well in Costa Rica. Real Salt Lake not only came out 1-0 loser to Herediano, but both starting center backs failed to finish the game. Nat Borcher’s ill-advised tackle in the 58th minute gave the referee license to send him off with a straight red card. Jamison Olave left the game shortly thereafter with a calf cramp. Down to 10 men with a weakened defense, RSL was left to protect a one-goal deficit in the interest of their overall goal differential. It was an inauspicious start.
Improvement is necessary if they’re going to get through the new group stage format. Three-team groups makes every point that much more crucial. If this possible redemption story is going to come to pass, RSL will need to be nearly perfect the rest of the way. The message that they treat competition seriously will ring hollow if they cannot make it out of the first round.
Real Salt Lake makes the Champions League a priority not just because they want to win, but because they see it as a way to showcase themselves. Lack of a nationally television presence, chalked up to broadcaster whims and the small size of the Salt Lake City market, means MLS fans rarely get to see the club with the team-first mentality and attractive style. The Champions League is a bigger stage with brighter lights. It’s natural a team without the inherent advantages of Seattle, New York, and LA would want to show well in that environment.
The strategy to become the team that succeeds at playing fluid, attractive soccer while not deferring to stars has worked, but it lacks full validation. The club’s only trophy in the Kreis era is the 2009 MLS Cup, a championship deemed (fairly or not) to have come too early in the process to be attributable to Real Salt Lake’s unique way of operating. Another title would bookend the transformative period and establish Kreis, alongside general manager Garth Lagerwey, as Major League Soccer’s best at their respective jobs.
RSL remains the most intriguing MLS entrant in the tournament. No one else puts as much into it, backing up their words with such a visible desire to win. As the window closes on this team, they've assigned themselves a monumental task. With that in mind, Real Salt Lake, the most successful MLS team in the modern incarnation of the region’s biggest tournament, is on the hunt for their own version of redemption. That's their story, even if it’s not apparent to anyone outside of Real Salt Lake that they need to redeem themselves at all.
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