Since transforming themselves from a group of stumbling bumblers as an expansion club in 2005 to a championship team in 2009 and a contender ever since, Real Salt Lake has given themselves, their fans, their community a whole lot to be proud of.
Doesn’t matter if part of that community wouldn’t know a soccer pitch from a pitchfork, a diamond formation from the Hope diamond, the Supporters’ Shield from an iron-clad jockstrap, sports fans from around here could look at an RSL flag and find a kind of self-respect in it. This team has been highly thought of among hard-core soccer purists, as well. Real won that MLS Cup four years ago and nearly ascended to the CONCACAF Champions League title in 2011. They may not yet have become the New York Yankees or Green Bay Packers of American soccer, but they had crossed a certain threshold of esteem.
Well. They crossed back in retreat on Tuesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, when and where self-respect and communal good feel took a major hit.
RSL lost the U.S. Open Cup final to hapless D.C. United, 1-zip. It was not a distinguished moment for the home club. United is the worst team in Major League Soccer — by far. And, after watching what happened here, it’s fair to ask: How mentally tough is a team like Real if they lose a big game to … these guys?
Jason Kreis had to be wondering the same thing. In the aftermath, the RSL coach looked like somebody hit him in the head with a tire iron. His team had just choked against an opponent far beneath it — on its home pitch.
“This is a brutal game sometimes,” he said.
His team was brutal, too.
Real possessed the ball more and had 19 shots to D.C. United’s 6, due, in part, to United falling back into a defensive shell after taking the lead. At some point, RSL had to finish to get credit for their effort, and they could not — against an opponent that had won all of three league games the entire season.
D.C. United took that lead just before the half when midfielder Lewis Neal punched in a shot from close range. Thereafter, RSL had its chances: Ned Grabavoy couldn’t carve the ball past D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid from in tight. Sebastian Velasquez ricocheted a ball off the left corner of the post and crossbar. Devon Sandoval’s bicycle kick in front of the goal hit Hamid in the breadbasket. Alvaro Saborio just missed off a corner kick.
“We get to a game like this and we can’t seem to put things together,” Kreis said.
Curious, given that the coach and the club had put so much emphasis on winning the U.S. Open Cup, a 100-year-old tournament that carried with it an invitation back to Champions League play, the place where RSL had earned so much national and international acclaim a couple years ago. Not only would they have kicked open the door for additional recognition, they also would have earned extra cash for the franchise, with another $250,000 divided among the players. For the uninitiated, the U.S. Open Cup starts with 68 teams from various levels of American soccer, and Real had taken care of a lot of their business against teams somewhere South of the MLS standard to get to the final. The U.S. Open Cup of hoops, for instance, might include the Lakers, the Knicks, the Pacers and the Heat, along with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Manchester Millrats and the Southeast Missouri Terror.
RSL had meandered through all that for their shot at Rio Tinto against another crappy foe. Turned out, it was a bad shot the proud Salt Lake club couldn’t — wouldn’t — make. Now, to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League play, Real will have to win the Supporters’ Shield with the best overall record in MLS or the MLS Cup. Either will be a whole lot more difficult than taking what was all but theirs on Tuesday night.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.