Real Salt Lake took a major step toward solving its biggest problem this weekend.
Yes, Luis Gil stepped up, but the Javier Morales replacement issue isn’t what I’m talking about. The problem they appear to be solving is much, much bigger and goes to the heart of what really happened during Tuesday night’s epic choke in the US Open Cup Final.
A little history will help me explain…
In 2009, very few analysts expected Salt Lake to even make the playoffs during the final weekend. When they did make it, they were expected to be a sacrificial lamb to the Supporters’ Shield winning Columbus Crew in the first round of the playoffs.
But then something special happened. Salt Lake beat Columbus at Rio Tinto Stadium, in front of only 11,499 fans. The stadium was half empty that Halloween night. Even Salt Lake fans didn’t believe enough to show up for the playoff match.
On Jason Kreis’ men went to Columbus, still playing with house money. They went down 2-0 (2-1 on aggregate), but there was no need to panic. They scored three unanswered goals, and advanced to the Conference Final. Two draws and two penalty shoot-outs later, Real Salt Lake was crowned MLS Cup Champions, having beaten the first and second place teams in the Eastern Conference and the first place team in the Western Conference.
At each step, they were written off and counted out. Yet they won it all, beating the best of the best in Major League Soccer.
But since then … nothing.
RSL has always been competitive, but the side can never close the deal. Whenever Jason Kreis’ men have gotten to the top of the power rankings or Supporters’ Shield standings, they’ve choked and come back to earth. It happens almost every season.
In cup play, they’ve fallen short year after year. The latest example was Tuesday night’s debacle against D.C. United, but it has gotten so bad that Salt Lake fans have started predicting it in advance. On Tuesday night, I jokingly referenced the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox as an apt comparison. It isn’t far off.
So how do they flip the script? After last season, the side opted for a larger-than-usual makeover, shipping out three All-Star caliber players, and going young.
Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle described the goal this way.
“What’s it all mean? Basically, that RSL are trying to get, on balance, two goals better than they’ve been. It doesn’t sound like much, but when there are trophies at stake, it seems like the biggest gap in the world.”
And yet the problems have persisted. There was a point this season when Salt Lake looked poised to run away with the Supporters’ Shield (they’d won 6 of 8 and earned 20 out of the 24 possible points on July 13), but they regressed (and won just 1 of their next 6 matches).
And of course, Tuesday night’s US Open Cup Final loss was devastating.
Do you see the pattern? Real Salt Lake is the best team in the league when it isn’t expected to win, but the team really struggles with high expectations. They crumble under them. Seriously, the numbers bear it out.
- They have watched three opponents raise trophies at Rio Tinto Stadium, all in matches Salt Lake was favored to win.
- They’ve won every two-match series they’ve ever played in when they didn’t have home field advantage (ie, the second match at home).
- Their only championship came when nobody believed in them.
In short, Real Salt Lake is a really good team, especially when nobody expects them to succeed. The stress, pressure, or whatever you want to call it of finishing things off when everyone knows they can is too much.
And this weekend, I saw something that makes me think they’re going to fix it. In part two of this series, I’ll explain…
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- Fixing the Biggest Problem Part 2 : Real Nation | October 8, 2013