SANDY, Utah – Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis finally came clean.
Just as his club was exhaling after dispatching of the Columbus Crew to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, Kreis revealed that he had great concern leading up to the two-leg series against Columbus.
Although both he and players had continually downplayed it, there was a cloud of pressure surrounding RSL that posed a realistic risk of sabotaging their road to Japan and the dreams of a FIFA Club World Cup.
“To be completely honest, I was a little concerned coming into this match because we’ve been talking a lot about [success in the Champions League] and what we’ve managed to do is put ourselves under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Kreis said after his team’s 4-1 victory. “We raised the level of expectations for ourselves, and on prior occasions we’ve seen that we’ve struggled with that. I was nervous that the guys would come out very nervous [Tuesday], but they didn’t.”
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS: RSL 4, Crew 1
And for all the talk of the field and weather conditions last week in Columbus, Kreis also pinned his team’s dour performance in the scoreless first leg draw on the weight of the pressure.
It was visible to anyone who paid attention last week that Real Salt Lake looked stunned at Crew Stadium when they realized that they were in for a battle. The self-doubt could be seen creeping into the team’s play.
“I think a lot of our faults from last week came about because we put too much pressure on ourselves,” Kreis said. “We really tried to get the guys to relax a little coming into this match.”
[inline_node:329569]And so how did RSL pull it off at Rio Tinto to the resounding tune of 4-1? The manager credits Javier Morales and Andy Williams with bursting the pressure bubble on Tuesday night, as they orchestrated the possession game MLS fans are accustomed to seeing.
“We’ve got certain players on the park that have extremely good nights and can bring a calm to your team — and that puts you in a good place,” Kreis said. “We’ve seen that if we can calm down and relax a little bit in our possession, we can have some success.”
The raucous crowd also may have played a part — which is why contrary to conventional wisdom, Kreis is glad that RSL are hosting the first game of the semifinal series against Saprissa or Olimpia.
“I think it will be important for us,” Kreis said. “We are typically always an aggressive team and typically trying to put our best foot forward and trying to put our stamp on matches, and that’s difficult for us on the road. “For us to start off at home will allow us to take the reins off the guys and just say, ‘Go for it. No fear.’”
Last year's MLS Cup Playoffs opener against FC Dallas comes to mind as perhaps one instance where the weight of expectations – RSL were the predominant favorites of many an expert to win MLS Cup – may have been reflected in the final result. Even an early goal at Pizza Hut Park didn’t help RSL avoid a 2-1 loss.
And so although success and an entertaining playing style have seemingly come easy to Real Salt Lake in recent years, they have shown in this start to 2011 that they are not a machine, regardless of what their 34-match home unbeaten streak may indicate.
So given the consequences, will this be the last time we see Real Salt Lake set their goals in a public forum?
Absolutely not. Self-imposed pressure is what fuels winners. Knowing how to manage it is what takes good teams and makes them great. It’s an evolutionary process that Kreis and RSL have embraced.
“We hope that we’ve learned and that when you get guys in the same situation multiple times," he said. "They improve and they learn.”