Jason Kreis played more than 300 professional matches and suited up 14 times for his country.
He scored more than 100 goals in his Major League Soccer career before taking over as Real Salt Lake’s coach, transforming the team and winning the 2009 MLS Cup.
But it’s RSL’s 2010-11 run to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League that he recalls most fondly.
“I so enjoyed being in that tournament twice,” he said. “That first experience we had … was probably the best memory I’ve ever had in soccer. It would be a huge personal accomplishment to get us back there.”
Kreis’ contract status may be up in the air, RSL’s chances at the Supporters’ Shield may have slipped away, and if the team is to make it to another MLS Cup there is months of soccer left to be played.
But right now, Real Salt Lake is standing on the doorstep of a return to Champions League.
A win over a lowly D.C. United team Tuesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, and RSL is in.
“We’re all excited,” said Salt Lake midfielder Sebastian Velasquez. “It’s a big game for all of us. We have an opportunity to make history. We have a chance to know that we all contributed to winning the U.S. Open Cup.”
Outside the modest group of American soccer fans, Tuesday’s championship game at Rio Tinto Stadium could pass with little fanfare. The game will be televised, but on GolTV — a network that has been dropped entirely by Comcast and Dish Network and can only be seen in standard definition on some DirecTV Spanish-language packages. The match won’t be streamed online.
But for Kreis, it will be his team’s most important game of the year to this point. The coach values a chance to win a title and return to Champions League so highly, he sat nearly all of his regular starters Saturday in Vancouver despite his team being in its final push toward the MLS playoffs.
“You know we said for the [last] six weeks that the most important match for us is the Open Cup final,” Kreis said.
The Open Cup, a 100-year-old soccer tournament, features 68 teams — of varying levels. Last season, an amateur team called Cal FC made it to the tournament’s fourth round, beating the Portland Timbers along the way.
It’s also a tournament in which RSL has traditionally performed poorly.
With the team’s attention split between Champions League and MLS play, RSL has rolled out second-tier lineups in recent years, with little success. Last season, Salt Lake was embarrassed 3-1 by the minor league Minnesota Stars.
This season, however, Kreis has been clear from the beginning about his intentions to win the entire tournament.
“I want to win this tournament,” Kreis said in May after his team had beaten the Atlanta Silverbacks, “and I want to win it in the worst way.”
RSL had some fortune along its road to Tuesday’s final. The team has played each game of the tournament at Rio Tinto Stadium, thanks to a series of coin-flip victories. And RSL was matched up with minor league competitors in the Atlanta Silverbacks, the Charleston Battery and the Carolina RailHawks before taking on Portland in the semifinal. Now Salt Lake will host D.C. United, a team that has struggled in league play this year.
RSL will be favored to emerge victorious again on Tuesday night, and a win would mean something extra.
“It feels like it’s taken forever for this game to come up,” defender Tony Beltran said of the final. “I’m just so excited to play it and hopefully win a trophy.”
D.C. United at Real Salt Lake
P U.S. Open Cup final
• Tuesday, 7 p.m.