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Final

RSL find fast start tough to maintain

a run during which the club scored nary a goal -- and 10 games without a victory.

The side only mustered two more victories and three more draws through the remainder of the season, including a paltry four points after the All-Star break. The end result of the 2005 season may have ultimately been just for a first-year club, but after the massive burst of positive energy surrounding the first month-and-a-half of the franchise's existence, RSL's final position in the table was certainly a disappointment.

Prior to their April 2 debut, MLS pundits had tabbed Real Salt Lake as the better of the two expansion sides. Their reasoning: RSL had compiled a roster that included a core of MLS veterans surrounded by a bevy of promising youngsters.

The other expansion team, Chivas USA, had at its core a group of Mexican transplants to whom the MLS style of play was both literally and figuratively foreign. Some preseason playoff predictions had RSL stealing the final playoff spot from either the entirely reconstituted San Jose Earthquakes or the unpredictable Colorado Rapids.

Through that May 18 match, the results appeared to bear out the prognostications. The club opened its inaugural year on the road, battling to a 0-0 draw in monsoon conditions against the MetroStars. After a 3-1 road loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy, RSL put themselves on the soccer map with their home opener in Week 3.

Before a raucous crowd of 25,287, Real bagged their first win, a 1-0 triumph against the Rapids on a Brian Dunseth diving header nine minutes from time. For all of those who doubted that Salt Lake City could support a professional soccer club, and for all of those who doubted Real Salt Lake could compete on the field, this game was proof to the contrary.

"I was in the stands for the first [home] game, so I saw it from a fan's perspective," said midfielder Andy Williams, who was injured for the Rice-Eccles Stadium opener. "That game was just tremendous. The crowd there was just unbelievable. It's not like they didn't know anything about soccer. They were into the game, yelling at the ref and yelling at the Colorado players. They were knowledgeable about the game. I couldn't even stay in my seat for that game."

For head coach John Ellinger, the energy of a city that immediately got behind its club and the adrenaline that came as the club tried to prove itself combined to carry RSL through the season's quarter pole. The Rice-Eccles faithful didn't see defeat on their home turf for their club's first four matches.

"When we first got the group -- I'm not sure about Chivas, but I can speak for our team -- when we first started, there was a bit of a chip on most of the guys' shoulders," Ellinger said. "No. 1, they were put on the expansion list, so they had a bit of an attitude and they used that energy early on and I think that was kind of what carried us through 3-3-2.

"We were pretty elated that we were able to get a point on the road in our very first game," he added. "We kind of got brought back down to reality in our second game, away against L.A. and then realized, of course, we had some work to do. And then things, again, turned to the positive.

"We played a pretty good match against Colorado and got the win at the end. That was exciting for sure. I think that was able to, basically, for that first eight games, kind of keep us in the mix."

For Williams, the early-season formula was simple: solid defense and timely goals.

"At the beginning of the year, the defense was playing really well," Williams said. "The defense was playing very well, and the offense didn't start to pick up yet. When you play defense, you're going to get chances to win, and we kind of squeaked out a couple of wins early in the season."

The time it took for offense to finally pick up seemed interminable for RSL. As the defense started to leak goals, the attack couldn't pick up the pieces, and from May 18 through June 22, the club suffered through an MLS-record 556-minute scoreless drought.

The five-game skid that accompanied the dubious streak sank Real to fifth place in the Western Conference, and they were never able to fully recover.

"I would say that was the toughest stretch for us," Ellinger said. "Being a new team, and with things that were transpiring -- we tried a variety of different options as far as getting goals and had a couple of systems to try and get us out of it -- nothing seemed to work for that stretch of time until we finally were able to get something.

"It was disappointing. Players, on the surface, were upbeat, but you knew it bothered them as it kept going."

And did it keep going. Though the goals eventually came, the points did not. RSL won matches on either side of the All-Star break -- a 3-0 thrashing of first-place FC Dallas the week before and a 2-1 win against Chivas the week after -- but that was that as far as the club's league victories were concerned. The team's only point after Aug. 6 came in a spirited come-from-behind 2-2 draw against the San Jose Earthquakes, but that's all RSL could hang their hat on for the final two months of the season.

It would be very easy to blame Real's expansion status for their woes. But the players and coaches who lived through the Salt Lake struggles are loathe to take the easy way out. For them, the answer lies in lineup continuity and plain old ability.

"Not to make excuses about injuries, but I think that we did have a good squad; we just didn't play consistent enough to earn a playoff berth this year," Williams said. "We had guys playing different positions throughout the season."

In 32 league games this year, RSL used a league-high 32 players and 31 different starting lineups. The only repeat lineup came in Week 2 of the season, when the same starting 11 that had drawn the MetroStars took the field to play the Galaxy.

"You can use [the expansion tag] as a crutch, so to speak, when performance isn't as good as it should be. So I think getting rid of that label ends that. We're no longer an expansion team, and now there are no excuses."

-- RSL coach John Ellinger

Right from the start, injuries took their toll, sidelining at various times Williams, Clint Mathis, Eddie Pope, D.J. Countess and the team's leading goal scorer, Jason Kreis. Kreis suffered a partial left ACL tear in the same game that he scored his 100th career goal -- an MLS record -- effectively mothballing the RSL attack.

"Losing [Kreis] this year was just a huge blow for us because up to that point, he was definitely our field leader and kind of our guy who would make us go," Ellinger said. "To lose him with those games at the end, obviously it didn't help too much, especially with a young team."

Since the end of the season, Ellinger and Real have been quick to address the issues that submarined their first campaign. They trained throughout the MLS Cup Playoffs and have been quick to make personnel moves in the opening days of the offseason. Also, Ellinger takes heart in the late-season play of his young squad, despite the mounting losses.

"We felt we were playing well, but we were running into teams that were playing well, also," Ellinger said. "It made it even more of a challenge to get some Ws.

"To see Colorado get to the conference final and to know that we had these battles with those guys throughout the year, I think gave us a pretty positive feeling heading into the offseason," he said. "I think going into a few extra weeks of training and stuff, we closed the season on a good note, with obviously some areas we need to improve upon regarding personnel, but also we took some steps in the right direction for sure."

RSL can be expected to pull a few more strings this offseason to further solidify their squad, but don't expect see an entirely new cast of characters in Salt Lake City next year.

"We're thinking of probably getting another veteran defender because of Eddie [Pope] and the World Cup coming up, and we're still looking at other options to maybe make it so we can get a few more goals," Ellinger said. "The one thing we didn't want to do is we didn't want to get into a panic mode and make these wholesale changes that turn us into an expansion team once again."

Actually, Ellinger is elated to be shedding the expansion label once and for all. Though being the underdog helped fuel the club in the early going, the RSL boss thinks it may have given his players an excuse to relax and accept poor results as a matter of course later in the season.

Next year, the pressure will be on, and Ellinger plans to be prepared for it.

"You can use [the expansion tag] as a crutch, so to speak, when performance isn't as good as it should be," Ellinger said. "So I think getting rid of that label ends that. We're no longer an expansion team, and now there are no excuses.

"So now, the expectation is for performance to be better. It's more like everybody else. Personally, I'm glad to be back onto the same page as everybody else, without the expectations of, 'Well, you're an expansion team and it's OK.'"

Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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