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Real Salt Lake 2009
2009 Club by Club
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Real Salt Lake entered the 2009 campaign with an unfamiliar aura: an unprecedented amount of roster stability, combined with heightened expectations due to 2008's Western Conference Final run. For a team that boasted just one player – fan favorite Andy Williams – from its inaugural team in 2005, the stability established by returning 12 of the 14 players who had appeared in the disappointing 0-1 home playoff loss to New York was most evident at the team's Rio Tinto Stadium home during 2009 (only Dema Kovalenko and Fabian Espindola were absent as the season kicked off, although Espindola returned to the RSL fold in late May).
The team's 9-1-5 mark – and 34-10 aggregate goal margin on its natural Rio Tinto Stadium pitch – resulted in the best home record in MLS in 2009. While tying a league record established by the 1998 Chicago Fire for home goal differential (+24), RSL also rewrote team record books with several historic moments – most notably the first-ever RSL hat trick in League play from FW Robbie Findley in the home opener against Columbus (April 2), four unanswered goals in the second half to erase a 0-2 halftime deficit in a 4-2, Pioneer Day win over FC Dallas (July 24), and a six-goal second-half outburst in a 6-0 rout of New England (April 25), one which featured goals by six different players.
The late-April win over the Revolution would be the team's last for nearly seven weeks, as all of May and early June represented a swoon that saw Real Salt Lake shut out four times in seven games, scoring just four goals (not including a 1-4 road loss in a U.S. Open Cup Qualifier at Seattle). Two of the goals came in a disappointing, 2-2 home draw that saw RSL hold not one, but two leads in second-half stoppage time. Catharsis came with a 2-0 road win at the Galaxy in mid-June in one of the most complete road performances of the season, if not the team's brief history.
The return of Espindola and a switch to a 4-3-3 formation, away from the trademark diamond midfield employed by Head Coach Jason Kreis since his takeover of the team, shook things up throughout the rest of June. The uptick in play stretched all the way to late August, by whence RSL had dropped just two of 10 games and won over several thousand of the Utah market's Hispanic fans with a dominating 1-0 win in an international friendly vs. Club America.
Findley and strike-mate Yura Movsisyan combined to score eight of the 14 RSL goals scored during that span, Movsisyan's red-hot June surely a factor in his decision depart Major League Soccer and sign a pre-contract with Danish club Randers FC on July 1, six months prior to the expiration of his MLS/RSL obligation.
The Real Salt Lake defense stepped up big during the late Summer emergence, with GK Nick Rimando tallying six shutouts in an 11-game span, and the central pairing of team MVP Nat Borchers and Defender of the Year Jamison Olave controlling the rearguard. Only three times in that 11-game run did RSL allow more than one goal, albeit in three-goal road losses at Columbus and at New England. It was the home shutouts against Chivas USA and Houston in August that inspired hope for the team, as well as a gritty, 1-0 road win at Kansas City that saw newcomer Pablo Campos notch the game-winner, even with RSL playing the final 45+ minutes a man down due to a Ned Grabavoy red card.
However, the home domination demonstrated by Real Salt Lake during the 2008 and 2009 seasons – a mark of 19-3-11 in MLS play in Utah's thin air – contrasted sharply with the team's ongoing struggles on the road. On Labor Day Weekend, RSL had just six games remaining - three each in September and October, sandwiched around a bizarre 18-day break in early October – to seize the day and attempt to go one step further than it had in 2008. Kreis used the 18-day break as a "mini-preseason" to put each player on the roster on notice that his job was up for grabs, and to install a renewed confidence in the locker room.
A return to the 4-4-2 diamond and an electric 1-1 draw in an international friendly with Mexican powerhouse Chivas de Guadalajara did just that, as RSL entered the final stretch with resolve to prove that the preseason hype was legitimate, and that the Claret-and-Cobalt belonged among Major League Soccer's elite.
The inability to win away from home in the late months – a heart-breaker at Houston, a devastatingly embarrassing performance at last-place FC Dallas and a loss in perhaps the team's best road form at Toronto – kept RSL from competing for the West's top spot, instead leaving the Utah squad fighting for its postseason lives right up until the final weekend. With the now-traditional season-finale showdown against Rocky Mountain Cup rival Colorado determining the playoff fate of at last one of the teams for the third consecutive year, it was Real Salt Lake once again stepping it up with a dominant 3-0 triumph at home, sparked by two Findley goals and a Movsisyan dagger that helped RSL control what it could of its playoff destiny.
The results of two other concurrent matches – and three others in total – on the final Saturday of 2009 conspired to Jason Kreis' team clinching an unlikely spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs for a second straight season.
"The one thing that sticks out in my mind more than anything is how we managed to stay together and really keep believing when everybody else didn't believe in us anymore," said All-Star midfielder Will Johnson.
As the eighth overall seed, but the fifth-place finisher in the Western Conference, Real Salt Lake provided fodder for the critics with its sub-.500 regular season record of 11-12-7. Crossing over into the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, RSL hoped to duplicate the run of the Red Bulls that stung the club just a year prior. It was déjà vu all over again in the first round against the defending champion Columbus Crew, as a late goal in the first leg at home, this time by Robbie Findley, pushed RSL out to a 1-0 series lead.
Real Salt Lake straightened out its road form at just the right time, a shock 3-2 win in the second leg propelling the visitors on to the East Final at Chicago the following week. After a hard-fought and scoreless 120 minutes of regulation and overtime at Toyota Park, RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando would step to the forefront, saving three of the Fire's seven penalty kick attempts, the last of which set up Grabavoy's conversion that gave the Utah club a 5-4 PK win and the fifth-year club its first-ever MLS Cup appearance.
Through the struggles on the road and inconsistent stretches of play, however, RSL players and coaches never relinquished their belief they could put it all together when it came time to do so – and never felt like the underdog at any point in the season.
"I guess that's the image that was portrayed and a lot of people feel that way about us," Kreis said. "But, inside the locker room, we were never a Cinderella team. Inside the locker room, we've been favorites all along. This feels a little better because we've really been down to the depths of despair. To see a result like that: hard-fought, well-deserved, on the road - everything that went into that game is gratifying."
With two "designated players" in Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus) and Cuauhtémoc Blanco (Chicago) vanquished, RSL and its "Team is the Star" philosophy were once again thrust into the "underdog" role against David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the star-laden LA Galaxy for their MLS Cup 2009 meeting at Seattle's Qwest Field just five days before Thanksgiving. Despite having never won a road game on artificial turf in its history (0-8-3 record, outscored 6-21), RSL was confident it could claim the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy after beating the Galaxy on the road and earning a draw at home during the regular season.
Drama played out early in the title match, as RSL engine Javier Morales suffered a hard tackle from Beckham in the 14th minute and was removed minutes later in favor of grizzled MLS and U.S. National Team veteran Clint Mathis.
The first 45 minutes in Seattle were labeled by many in the RSL family as the worst half played in the 2009 season, the squad fortunate not to be facing more than a one-goal deficit, thanks to Beckham and Donovan setting up Mike Magee's 41st minute goal against the run of play. Adding insult to injury, one of the team's midfield engines, Will Johnson, was removed at halftime due to illness, replaced by Grabavoy, the hero of the prior weekend in Chicago.
Early in the second half, with Beckerman, Grabavoy, Mathis and Andy Williams controlling the midfield, RSL equalized, as the team's 2009 Golden Boot winner Findley would score the last of his 15 combined regular and postseason goals. The 1-1 scoreline remained through regulation and overtime, setting up the second consecutive week of penalty kick drama. Rimando would stand tall once again, forcing a miss out of Landon Donovan and making more two saves. The seventh round would again be kind to Real Salt Lake, as defender Robbie Russell's low kick inside the left post would sneak in, giving the "Claret-and-Cobalt" the first title in team history - and the State of Utah its first major-league professional sports title since the 1971 ABA Utah Stars, a span of nearly 40 years.
Seeing the joy in the faces of his teammates was a priceless moment for Russell because they had earned the top prize in MLS by traveling a long, hard road.
"Maybe it makes it sweeter," Russell said. "I don't how it would feel like any other way. Getting a championship is always great, but we had to fight a little bit harder for it and it makes it that much more worthwhile."
Just two days later, on the steps of the Utah State Capitol during a ceremony with Governor Gary Herbert and several other dignitaries, Real Salt Lake founder Dave Checketts challenged Jason Kreis and the team to win the title again in 2010, delivering on the promise of a budding MLS dynasty.
"We're just starting to scratch the surface of this team," RSL Captain Kyle Beckerman said. "This is a big moment for our club and I think this is going to help us a lot to move forward and really get better and really make Salt Lake a team that is always consistently excellent.”