The memories are still succulently fresh for Real Salt Lake — the shower of confetti, the roar of the crowd. The glorious heft of the Major League Soccer championship trophy being lifted high overhead.
Now, imagine the team enjoying all of that over again … at home.
It’s actually possible, too, with the league having changed its postseason format again for the season that begins with RSL taking on the star-studded defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday night at the Home Depot Center.
For the first time in its 17-year history, the league will allow the finalist with the best regular-season record to play host to the MLS Cup title game on Dec. 1.
And that means excelling week-in and week-out for the next eight months could prove more important than ever — something RSL has on its mind as it begins a season in serious pursuit of another championship.
“We all know what it means at the end of the season,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “If we can make it to the finals and do well in the regular season, we could have the final right here at Rio Tinto Stadium. So it starts right from the beginning.”
The challenge might be harder than ever, though.
While RSL is starting the season with eight new players and without four regular starters who are still working their way back from offseason surgeries, the Galaxy are loaded once again, armed with the likes of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, David Beckham and Edson Buddle after winning back-to-back Supporters Shield regular-season titles, to go with their MLS Cup.
Their only question seems to be whether the league’s best defense can survive the loss of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts to the expansion draft and star defender Omar Gonzalez to a serious knee injury.
Still, general manager Garth Lagerwey made it absolutely clear this week that anything short of another championship simply will not be enough for an RSL team whose core group of veterans he has worked hard to keep together since its title run three seasons ago. He said the team must win the title and reach the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League again.
“If we achieve those, we succeed,” he said. “If we don’t, we fail. Very black and white this year.”
And the lure of a title game at home is almost too delicious to imagine, the potential for snow and freezing temperatures notwithstanding.
The change comes after years of the title game being held at a pre-determined site — RSL beat the Galaxy for its title in Seattle, for example — mostly to afford the fledgling league a chance to market the game with plenty of lead time.
Commissioner Don Garber said he “couldn’t have felt confident” in years past that any of the teams in the league could deliver a good crowd on short notice.
Now, he has “absolutely no doubt” that “we’ll be able to have packed stadium,” regardless of which team earns the right to host the game, on the heels of record attendance at MLS games last season. Garber said an average of 17,782 fans attended each game last season, or about 5.4 million combined, and the expansion Montreal Impact are expected to deliver another wildly passionate fan base.
“It all feels a bit like a tidal wave that’s rising,” he said.
That’s how RSL might like to see itself, too.
Starting as strong as last season might be tough, with all of its injuries and new players among the reserves to get acclimated to the system.
But the team hopes that over the course of the 34-game schedule — three games against each of its nine Western Conference opponents, and one against each of the 10 teams in the Eastern Conference — it can find good health and a steady groove that pays off in the end.
To do that, winning more road games figures to be crucial.
RSL had only the fifth-best road record in MLS last season, and finished third overall in the Western Conference. It also has lost its last three games on the road against the Galaxy, including the one in the playoffs that ended its season last year.
“It’s a terrific rivalry,” coach Jason Kreis said. “What we have is two teams that have built their teams completely differently. We’ve built our team with trying to find better-than-average players, put them all together and see if we can’t have an outstanding product. They’ve built their team with world superstars.
“I think it’s an interesting dynamic,” he added. “It’s always a competition that I’m up for, because I’m interested in how that all plays out.”
MLS playoff format
For the first time, the MLS Cup title game will be played at the home of the finalist with the best regular-season record. Previously, it was held at a predetermined site. The game is scheduled for Dec. 1 this season. The league also eliminated “wild-card” playoff berths; now, the top-five teams in each conference will qualify for the postseason. The fourth- and fifth-place teams in each conference will play a single knockout game, but the next two rounds — conference semifinals and finals — both will be two-game, aggregate-goals series leading to the single game MLS Cup final.
RSL at L.A. Galaxy
P At the Home Depot Center (Carson, Calif.)
Kickoff • 8:30 p.m. MST
TV • Ch. 4
Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 106.1 FM
Records • First game
Regular season series • Tied, 7-7-5
Last meeting • Los Angeles, 3-1 (Nov. 6, 2011)
About RSL • It’s 2-2-3 all-time in MLS season openers, with wins coming at San Jose in each of the past two years. … It finished 15-11-8 last season, in third place in the MLS Western Conference. … Forward Álvaro Saborío, midfielders Javier Morales and Will Johnson, and defender Nat Borchers are not expected to start while recovering from offseason surgeries. Saborío and Morales could be available off the bench, though. … It has lost its past three road meetings with the Galaxy, counting last season’s playoff exit.
About the Galaxy • Riding an 18-game regular-season home unbeaten streak, they will raise a championship banner before the game. … They won their second straight Supporters Shield regular-season title last season with a 19-5-10 record.