SALT LAKE CITY — Real Salt Lake were oh-so-close to so many big things this year. Four kicks away, maybe, from the US Open Cup, the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup.
It's the fourth year in a row the Claret-and-Cobalt have amassed 50-plus points during the regular season, but they only have one trophy to show for it — this year's Western Conference title, which earned them a berth to MLS Cup.
But do not suggest to members of Real Salt Lake that their legacy is that of a team that can't win the big one.
"It’s unbelievable that this group has put themselves in so many positions to win things and, unfortunately, things for one reason or another haven’t gone our way,” head coach Jason Kreis said after his team's shootout loss to Kansas City in the MLS Cup final on Saturday. “Very easy to look at it in a negative way, but I don’t think we should.”
Defender Chris Wingert told reporters on Monday after his exit physical that it's “really disappointing” to finish as runners-up in three different competitions.
"This club wants to be competing for championships,” Wingert said, before quickly reconsidering. “We are competing for championships. We want to be winning championships.”
And 17 of the other 18 teams in MLS would probably have been happy to be in RSL's position.
“When you back on the season, we were fighting and clawing and really close to all three trophies that were available,” team captain Kyle Beckerman told reporters. “And not many teams can say that.
“It's tough, but there were really some awesome things to get into those positions that maybe we take for granted. And you don't just get placed into a big game, you're going to have to win some big games to get there.”
Not bad, they're thinking, for a team that was expected to struggle just to make the playoffs this season.
Rather than a legacy of underachieving, RSL see themselves building one of overachieving. After all, they point out, little was expected of this team that came oh-so-close to a treble this year.
“In January, everybody was talking about a rebuilding year,” playmaker Javier Morales said. “Nobody believed in this team.”
Talk was that RSL might not make the playoffs, “and we played in another final," continued Morales. "So I'm so proud of my team. I think we made a great year.”
Following the loss to Sporting Kansas City, midfielder Ned Grabavoy acknowledged that “people will talk about — they made it to another championship and couldn’t win.” But it's “tough for fans or media people to have an understanding of how hard it is to win a championship.”
Still, they came oh-so-close once again on Saturday. When RSL hit the post three times against Sporting Kansas City, it felt like deja-vu, reminiscent of the narrow loss to Monterrey in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League final or the slim 1-0 upset at the hands of D.C. United in this past October's US Open Cup final.
“If that ball when I chip it goes in [this past Saturday], maybe we're talking something different,” Morales said. “Everyone is mad right now. Everyone is sad because everyone wanted to win that final.
"I think it was just unlucky for us. How many posts? Three posts during the game. Then we have the penalties. Lucky for them, unlucky for us.”
Scott Pierce covers Real Salt Lake for MLSsoccer.com.