Kansas City, Kan.
With a reddish beard and a wild look in his eyes, Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers reminded team owner Dell Loy Hansen of a Viking marauder. They hugged in celebration of the Western Conference championship in Portland, and Borchers told his boss, “I love taking a win on somebody else’s field.”
RSL will have that opportunity again Saturday on Major League Soccer’s biggest stage, meeting Sporting Kansas City in the MLS Cup final. Real can win a second title in five seasons, distinguishing itself as one of the top franchises in MLS history.
Here’s the thing: RSL has fielded better teams than the club that improbably won the 2009 championship, and it just might keep getting better in the coming years. Yet the seasons in between these MLS Cup final appearances have illustrated that getting there is not easy for any team.
Mix in the uncertain future of coach Jason Kreis, who’s considering an offer from the New York expansion franchise, and this becomes a landmark moment for RSL.
Only four franchises have won multiple titles in the league’s previous 17 years. This is RSL’s shot at greatness, another chance to advance from consistent regular-season success to a championship level.
“I really believe that this is a really veteran group of guys who want to leave their mark,” RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “They don’t just want to be a good team, they want to be remembered. At some level, we’re playing for history.”
Lagerwey labels the potential pair of championships “bookends,” and they would frame nicely Hansen’s involvement in RSL. The commercial real estate baron from Cache Valley bought into the franchise in October 2009, just in time to join in the fun as a team with a losing record in the regular season won the title. The second championship could come in his first season of full ownership after he secured the franchise with a buyout of founder Dave Checketts.
Hansen still marvels about receiving some kind of trophy after seemingly every victory during that memorable month in ’09, and he remembers taking 22 family members onto the field in Seattle to celebrate the championship after RSL beat Los Angeles.
That was a major upset of the Galaxy team featuring Landon Donovan and David Beckham, competing on a neutral field as formerly was the MLS tradition.
This time, RSL is playing a genuine road game. RSL will have to stage another unlikely win whie playing in sub-freezing temperatures at Sporting Park against a tough team that earned Saturday’s host berth by finishing slightly higher in the MLS standings.
RSL already has overachieved in 2013. The team competed for the Supporters’ Shield until the final weekend of the regular season, finishing with the fourth-best record in MLS during a year that began with a significant makeover of the roster.
“From the outside looking in, it did seem like it was no chance we could be in this position,” captain Kyle Beckerman said, “but I think a lot of guys with the team, in the locker room, felt we could do this.”
Winning another championship “would be incredible,” Kreis said. “I think it’s already incredible, honestly. ... It feels so rewarding for everybody that’s involved with this team right now.”
Hansen rewarded his players by chartering a plane and providing tickets to some 120 of their family members, enhancing the potential celebration. As for his own family, he was told after that ’09 experience that bringing everybody onto the field after the game violated MLS protocol.
So Hansen is learning about ownership practices along the way, but he’s sticking to his centuries-old theme, as his team tries to make MLS history on the road: “This is like the Vikings going into Kansas City and saying, ‘This is ours, and we’re going to take it home.’”