Real Salt Lake 2008
2008 Club by Club
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
The 2008 season will forever be remembered as a year of firsts for Real Salt Lake, the tipping point in the team's evolution, when the roster turnover and inconsistency of the organization's first three campaigns dissipated, replaced by a competitive core with purpose, drive and ambition. In the span of a few months, RSL went from Major League Soccer's basement to the precipice of an MLS Cup title, the lone remaining Western Conference team in the league's final four.
Head Coach Jason Kreis guided his squad into the post-season for the first time in a year when the club ascended to first place in the Western Conference for the first time in club history, holding the top spot mid-Summer for three weeks, and never dropping below a tie for third place after the first week of June.
In somewhat traditional RSL fashion, the team was slow out of the gates in April and May, with 17 new faces learning how to play together with losses in five of the first 10 games. However, interspersed were a pair of 4-0 home wins over MLS sides D.C. United and San Jose Earthquakes (in a U.S. Open Cup play-in game) that saw Captain Kyle Beckerman tally four of the eight goals, while the strike trio of Yuri Movsisyan, Robbie Findley and Fabian Espindola showed the attacking prowess which would blossom later in the season.
RSL rebounded in the middle third of the year to catapult itself to unprecedented heights in the standings, going undefeated in eight of 10 games in June and July. Despite suffering scoring droughts that would have doomed the team in the past, a rock-solid defense led by GK Nick Rimando, central defenders Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave and the versatile Chris Wingert allowed less than a goal per game in that span, including six shutouts.
The staunch defense allowed RSL to gain 16 points in 10 games despite averaging exactly one goal per game of its own, moving atop the Western Conference for the first time ever on July 12, and moving above .500 for the first time ever on July 28.
Despite occupying first place in the West, with more points than all but a trio of MLS teams, RSL saw exactly zero of its players chosen to represent the MLS All-Stars vs. West Ham in Toronto in early August. Kreis' "Team is the Star" mantra was taken literally by media and fans around the league, which did not yet appreciate the excellence of playmaker Javier Morales and forward Yura Movsisyan, among others.
Kreis and General Manager Garth Lagerwey utilized the midsummer break to add depth and experience from Europe to the roster, plugging in key pieces during the league's international transfer window. In that time, RSL added the versatility of 2005 star Clint Mathis, Canadian-American midfielder Will Johnson and utility man Robbie Russell, all three playing key roles in the team's postseason run.
Johnson instantly earned a starting role, playing every minute of the latter half of the season, even tallying MLS Goal of the Year honors for his pivoting long-range blast at Rio Tinto Stadium against Dallas. Mathis and Russell gradually moved into the first XI as well, possessing high degrees of work-rate and meshing well with the existing core of the team.
Kreis credited Lagerwey's knack for finding the best players available, as the RSL technical staff logged hundreds of thousands of frequent-flier miles, crossing the globe and scouting not only domestic players, but also visiting England, Scotland, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Germany, Norway, Trinidad and Mexico in search of the right pieces to the puzzle.
Many of the players themselves hoped for good things when they joined RSL at midseason. What they experienced as the season wound down exceeded even their fondest expectations.
Real Salt Lake's 2008 Team MVP, playmaker Javier Morales, emerged as a dark-horse candidate for league MVP honors, gaining a national reputation as the key to the team's success. His combination of clutch goals and assists during the year's closing stretch authored RSL's attacking prowess, which saw the club lead MLS in both shots and shots on goal.
DF Chris Wingert and his RSL teammates hoisted the Rocky Mountain Cup in heart stopping fashion for the second straight season. Not only did Yura Movsisyan's 90th minute strike earn the 1-1 draw and Cup victory for the Utah side, it booked the squad's spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs and eliminated the Rapids from contention.
The final third of the 2008 campaign also became the Armenian-American Movsisyan's time to shine, scoring seven goals in the final 11 games, several in dramatic fashion. Yura locked down a starting spot and responded with a torrid goal-scoring pace, leading RSL to capture points in seven of the final 10 games of the season, dramatically pushing the team into the postseason with a 90th-minute equalizer against Rocky Mountain Cup rival Colorado.
That final road draw against the Rapids was emblematic of the team's late-season road success, where it won or tied four of its final five games away from home. The fulcrum of Real Salt Lake's growth and emergence was its come-from-behind, 3-2 win at San Jose, a triumph in late September which set off a seven-game unbeaten streak that stretched into the postseason.
Clearly, the signature moment of Real Salt Lake's fourth season was the move from its rented Rice-Eccles Stadium home - where the team dropped just one game all year on the artificial turf - to its permanent Rio Tinto Stadium venue, a breathtaking, state-of-the-art facility which envelops the fans and makes them part of the action. While New York would spoil the opening party on Oct. 9 by grinding out a 1-1 draw, a game that featured Olave scoring the first Claret-and-Cobalt goal in their new digs 41 minutes in, RSL would capture the first win in Sandy nine days later, a 3-1 win over Dallas punctuated by Johnson’s volleyed “golazo.”
Once RSL reached the MLS Cup Playoffs, the West’s #3-seed was not content to simply sit back and call it a season. The Utah side upset 2005 expansion partner Chivas USA and earned a surprise berth into the Western Conference Championship - as the host, to boot. Despite dominating the run of play against New York, RSL suffered a bitter 1-0 loss in the West final, leaving the one-time Cinderella team with the thoughts of what could have been heading into the offseason.