A sly smile crept across the face of Ned Grabavoy. Still catching his breath following another one of his team’s imposing postseason performances, the Real Salt Lake midfielder took a long sip from the Gatorade bottle he’d been holding behind his back minutes after RSL defeated the No. 1-seeded Portland Timbers to win the Western Conference to find its way back to an MLS Cup final.
Then he found his answer to the question: How does this team, this specific group of players, stack up against that magical run of 2009, when RSL announced itself to Major League Soccer?
Long before he’d become a staple in RSL’s midfield, Grabavoy was a sub who worked his way into the good graces of the coaching staff. He was a second-half substitute in the final against the star-studded L.A. Galaxy in 2009.
“This team is much better than that 2009 team,” he said. “But I think it was important winning a championship that year. It made us believe that we were a great team. I think from that 2009 season going forward, yeah we haven’t won a ton of things, but it’s not easy to win. People act like it’s easy to win championships. If it’s easy to win championships, everybody would do it, and not many teams do it.”
Four years later, RSL has a chance to do what only four other MLS franchises have done in the league’s 19-year history: Win more than one title.
And eight players who shocked the league and L.A. on the turf at CenturyLink Field in Seattle in 2009 return for another go at a crown. The supporting cast is different, having infused a variety of versatile younger talents this season, but much of the core that coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey created in 2007, 2008 and 2009, remains.
Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales both put in what could be construed as their best professional seasons in 2013. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando is the leading candidate for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Defenders Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran have established the RSL back line as one of the tops in the league. And the return of Robbie Findley, who scored the lone goal during the 2009 final, has overcome an injury-riddled regular season to score back-to-back goals against the Timbers, providing the knockout punch in RSL’s 1-0 win in the second leg Nov. 24.
“We’re here for a reason,” Findley said. “It’s been a lot of hard work that’s been put in throughout the season. We deserve to be here.”
But having achieved such a lofty goal as a young group still learning the intricacies of how each other plays, RSL’s veterans have experienced more disheartening losses than the elation of that November night in Seattle since the title.
Most notably, the loss to Monterrey in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final at Rio Tinto, followed by a 3-1 loss to L.A. later that season in the Western Conference final. Toss in the demoralizing 1-0 loss to lowly D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup this season, and this group surely has been fueled.
“I’ve said it before — I think we’re a tighter group than we were in ’09,” Borchers said. “I think that a lot of our guys have been together longer. I think we still have a big chip on our shoulder from the cups we’ve missed out on. This is a big opportunity.”
Several players, along with Kreis and Lagerwey, have said the depth of this year’s team sets it apart from previous seasons, with the continued development of Luis Gil, Chris Schuler and Sebastian Velasquez, among others.
That, coupled with the fact that this squad was a No. 2 seed, won 16 games, finished with 56 points — second most in franchise history — opposed to that 2009 group, which wiggled its way into the playoffs before its memorable run, shows exactly what winning the cup four years ago did for the franchise.
“This team was challenging for Supporters’ Shield,” Kreis said. “That  team barely made it into the playoffs. But both teams really found an incredible sense of togetherness at the end of the season and an incredible amount of willingness to [do] whatever it took to move on in the playoffs.”
One group raised a cup, while this group awaits its opportunity.
RSL 2009 vs. RSL 2013
2009 • 5th in the West (11-12-7)
Won Eastern Conference semifinals against Columbus (4-2)
Won Eastern Conference final against Chicago (5-4 PKs)
• Won MLS Cup against L.A (5-4 penalty kicks)
2013 • 2nd in West (16-10-8)
Won Western Conference semifinal against L.A. (2-1)
Won Western Conference final against Portland (5-2)
Faces Sporting Kansas City in MLS Cup final, Dec. 7
RSL players still on roster from the team that won in 2009:
Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy
Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Tony Beltran
O Real Salt Lakeat Sporting KC
Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • ESPN