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Real Salt Lake 2011
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New England Revolution
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The 2011 season didn’t quite go according to plan for Real Salt Lake. Despite all of the preseason talk centered around which trophies the Claret-and-Cobalt would be taking home this year (MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League), it ended up falling short on each count. RSL finished the year with a 15-11-8 record, with only the record breaking defense of LA bettering its total of 36 goals against.
The Utah outfit certainly showed they had a solid backbone to the team, yet came up short at keys times in the year, just when it looked as if glory was on the horizon. The season turned out to be one full of struggles and adversity, as injuries, national team call-ups and fatigue took their toll at various points in the year. Still, RSL was still able to claw its way into third place on the league table (which earned the squad a 2012/13 CCL berth in the process) and beat a talented Seattle Sounders FC squad in the opening round of the MLS Cup Playoffs before succumbing to the eventual champion Galaxy in an entertaining Western Conference Championship at The Home Depot Center.
The campaign started early due to CCL Championship Stage play, a captivating run that began against fellow MLS side Columbus Crew in the Quarterfinals. After a scoreless Leg One in frigid Central Ohio on Feb. 22, RSL warmed up on the chilly Wasatch Front a week later, a 4-1 thumping setting up a Semifinal Round showdown against Costa Rican power Deportivo Saprissa.
Playing against the club he helped lead to the 2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup title, striker Alvaro Saborio tallied the opener for Real in a 2-0 triumph in Sandy in the opening leg on March 15. RSL carried that momentum across the three-week break between legs down to Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, where Jamison Olave’s second half tally made the difference in a 1-2 defeat that was good enough to produce a 3-2 aggregate win, allowing the Utahns to become the first MLS team to earn a spot in the CCL Finals.
Arguably RSL’s best moment of the year came on April 20, when it earned a stunning 2-2 draw at Monterrey’s Estadio Tecnológico in the first leg of the Champions League finals back in April. Twice the visitors went down in hostile conditions, but Nat Borchers and Javier Morales were able to answer back, the latter’s equalizer in the waning moments setting up a dramatic finale back at Rio Tinto Stadium in the return leg.
Real Salt Lake’s quest for CCL glory piqued the interest of soccer fans across North America, giving MLS supporters the rare opportunity to galvanize behind a squad in international competition. Despite having the support of MLS fans across North America and needing just a 0-0 or 1-1 draw to add to the trophy case, the April 27 decider failed to fall RSL’s way as Chilean international Humberto Suazo’s close-range goal just before the half would stand tall for Monterrey in their 1-0 victory. The defeat not only dashed a historic moment for the Claret-and-Cobalt, but also pierced the club’s invincibility at Rio Tinto Stadium, the result marking RSL’s first loss in Sandy in 33 competitive games, a stretch that dated back to May 2009.
While a defeat with so much on the line would normally count as the low point in a season, RSL’s morale suffered an even bigger blow less than two weeks later on May 7, when playmaker Javier Morales suffered a horrific ankle injury at home against Chivas USA. The image of the Argentine’s agony after suffering a hard challenge from Marcos Mondaini was hard to erase from the collective memory of “RSL Nation,” but the impact of losing Morales for what many thought would be the remainder of the year was even more was profound. Real Salt Lake’s “Team is the Star” mantra would be put to the test more than it ever had been in the Jason Kreis era, and while the squad would fail to hit on all cylinders across much of the summer, the collective still had more than enough quality pieces in place to build on its strong start and stay towards the top of the MLS table.
In the absence of Morales, several players had the chance to pull the strings at the top of RSL’s midfield diamond, but not took better advantage of the opportunity than young Luis Gil. By necessity, the budding playmaker announced himself to MLS fans at the age of 17, his blast from outside of the area against the New York Red Bulls at Rio Tinto Stadium in August opening his MLS scoring account and symbolizing signs of good things to come for the talented Californian. On the opposite end of the field (and the RSL roster’s age-range), another SoCal native helped pick up the slack, as veteran ‘keeper Nick Rimando registered 13 shutouts and a 1.09 GAA during another standout campaign.
In a season full of emotional twists and turns, captain Kyle Beckerman was a rock. The gritty midfielder cranked his game up a notch in the absence of Morales, tallying a career-high nine assists and helping to keep his team’s head above water when it could have easily folded at various points along the way. With the exception of a regrettable and out-of-character lapse of judgment when he headbutted Chicago's Daniel Paladini in late September – a stunt that earned him a five-game suspension – he was among the top performers in the League, meriting serious MVP consideration and resulting in a re-birth of his senior international career for the USA over the summer thanks to new boss Jurgen Klinsmann.
With Beckerman’s suspension and periodic absences due to international duty, it was important for RSL to find a fill-in at the holding midfielder spot. They found one with the late-season addition of Yordany Álvarez, who was coming off a championship-winning season in which he was named the USL Pro league MVP for his efforts with Orlando City SC.
Despite suffering through mountains of adversity, a franchise-record five-game winning streak across late-August and September allowed RSL to stay in a fierce three-team race for the Supporters Shield alongside fellow Western foes Seattle and Los Angeles. However, a five-game losing swoon and disappointing 1-1 draw at home against Portland in the regular season finale followed, the two vastly different runs echoing the roller-coaster that was RSL’s 2011 campaign. The one bright spot for RSL down the stretch was the inspirational return of Morales, who came off the bench on Sept. 28 against Chicago to a true hero’s welcome, evoking one of the loudest ovations in the three-plus-year history of Rio Tinto Stadium.
So why would the playoffs be any different? An “unfair” meeting, according to Kreis, between RSL and Seattle in the Western Conference Semifinals would pit league powers against each other in the opening round, and it was the Utahns that answered the bell quickly. Using a brace by Saborio and an ultimately pivotal late tally by Ned Grabavoy, Real Salt Lake jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the aggregate series, but the win would prove costly as the centerback tandem of Nat Borchers and repeat MLS Best XI performer Jamison Olave both left the match due to injury. RSL then held on for dear life in the second leg at CenturyLink Field, using a key first half goal mouth block by defender Tony Beltran and a lockdown last 10 minutes to stave off the Sounders, a 0-2 defeat good enough to register a 3-2 aggregate win and a date in LA against the Galaxy in the Western Conference Championship.
Despite both teams working on short rest, the showdown at The Home Depot Center was both entertaining and exhausting to watch. Real Salt Lake came firing out of the gates in the opening quarter-hour, but a PK conversion by Landon Donovan would put the home side up against the run of play 21 minutes in. However, Saborio would answer by heading home less than two minutes later to keep the crowd on edge – and the Galaxy on notice. RSL became the latest victim of Mike Magee’s postseason offensive firestorm, a header of his own put the Galaxy back on top just shy of the hour mark. RSL almost answer straight away once again, but Fabian Espindola – who enjoyed a breakout campaign with 10 regular season goals – saw his spectacular, twisting effort from distance clank off the crossbar, signifying the coming of the end for the Claret-and-Cobalt. A Robbie Keane finish off a quick counter in the 68th minute was the final nail in the coffin for Real Salt Lake, which would have only re-entry into the CONCACAF Champions League to show at the end of the most trying of its seven MLS campaigns.