SANDY, Utah – Regardless of whether Real Salt Lake finish first or second in the Western Conference and regardless or where they wind up in the race for the Supporters' Shield, the team has far exceeded head coach Jason Kreis' expectations.
“If, at the beginning of the season, you told me we would barely slip into the playoffs, I would have said, 'I’ll take it. Absolutely, I'll take it,'” Kreis said in the wake of RSL's win over Chivas USA on Wednesday night. “But to be where we are…”
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Claret-and-Cobalt. After failing to make the CONCACAF Champions League, losing out on allocation money and facing salary cap problems, RSL traded Will Johnson to Portland and sent both Jámison Olave and Fabián Espíndola to New York.
“We knew coming into the season that we had some new pieces to add and we lost some key guys,” said veteran defender Nat Borchers. “I think that a lot of the talk around town was that we were in a rebuilding year, but for us to be in this position now is very positive. The guys who have come in have done a great job of adjusting to our system and playing to meet our needs.”
Even their coach said he's surprised Real didn't miss a beat.
The team led the Western Conference and the Supporters' Shield races for much of the season, and they still have a shot at both pending the outcome of three matches they'll be watching closely this weekend.
Worst-case scenario for Salt Lake right now is their third second-place finish in the Western Conference in four years – with a third-place finish in 2011 being the only exception.
Did Kreis see his team piling up 16 wins and 56 points in 2013?
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I think a huge amount of respect needs to go to the players and the efforts that they put forth and the team as a whole, coaching staff included. To pick up the points necessary to put ourselves in a position with a chance for all this stuff is nothing short of remarkable in my mind.”
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RSL wrapped up their regular season on Wednesday night with a 2-1 win over Chivas USA and now get to sit back and watch what happens this weekend. Should Portland lose or tie at Chivas, Salt Lake will finish at the top of the Western Conference. If that happens and Sporting Kansas City lose or tie at Philadelphia, plus New York lose to Chicago, Salt Lake will win the Shield.
That is not something RSL players were even contemplating back in March when the season began.
“I knew we’d definitely be fighting for a playoff spot,” said team captain Kyle Beckerman. “To be here, I guess you don’t really see that.”