Championship would mean just about everything to RSL
When team owner Dave Checketts watched his Real Salt Lake players celebrating in the locker room after earning a place in the MLS Cup championship game for the first time, he could scarcely believe it.
"Incredible," he said.
But he might not have seen anything, yet.
If RSL can defeat the heavily favored Los Angeles Galaxy at Seattle's Qwest Field on Sunday to complete an astonishing run to a championship, it surely will validate the organization in a way nothing else could.
Suddenly, every painful aspect of its history -- from its origins as a miserable expansion team to its sweeping regime change and roster renovation to its controversial fight to build Rio Tinto Stadium -- will have been absolutely worth it.
"We can permanently change the outlook of this franchise," general manager Garth Lagerwey said.
Already, it has started.
Surging into the playoffs just when everybody thought all hope was lost has made last season's postseason run look less like a less like a fluke than the start of a pattern, and the steady drumbeat of doubts about RSL's ability to advance has galvanized the franchise behind coach Jason Kreis, who has refused to let others characterize his team as unworthy or incapable.
"We're not done, by any means," midfielder Clint Mathis insisted.
The team could hardly have asked for a better matchup, either.
Although the star-studded Galaxy are seen as an overwhelming favorite, they have not beaten RSL in two meetings this season -- although neither one included soccer icon David Beckham, who was still away on loan, playing for AC Milan in Italy. Also, the perception that RSL is up against unstoppable opponents means a victory against them will resonate even more.
The Galaxy have also helped elevate what's usually a niche event into something a lot closer to mainstream magnitude.
Tickets are relatively scarce in a city that has embraced soccer like a long-lost girlfriend, with demand to watch Beckham causing officials to put another 6,000 tickets on sale for the game, in addition to the 36,000 that already had constituted a sellout.
Meanwhile, ESPN will televise the game nationally on its flagship station, no doubt spotlighting Beckham and league most valuable player Landon Donovan and legendary coach Bruce Arena -- one of the great architects of American soccer. It will be the first league championship broadcast in prime time, and probably will show the roof of the renowned Space Needle painted with the logos of the competing teams.
You just can't buy that kind of exposure.
"I kept telling Jason during the year, I kept saying, 'Look, I think we're going to make the playoffs,'" Checketts recalled. "In fact, I had this feeling we were going to play Beckham in the playoffs in our stadium. And of course it turned out I was wrong about the place, but I was right about who we're playing."
That's pretty impressive, considering even the team's players were unsure they would make it.
But once they realized they still had a shot, they rallied to put together the most stunning run in franchise history -- winning four straight games (two on the road, in the playoffs) -- to deliver Checketts precisely the championship opportunity he envisioned when he hired Kreis and Lagerwey to rebuild the team.
Neither of the former college teammates had any experience at their new jobs.
"You'd have to look at that now and say, 'Wow, those guys have done some job together and put us in a position where we can bring a championship back to the people of Utah,' which is what I'd really like to do," Checketts said. "They've been great."
Players and coaches evidently feel the same way about their boss.
In the locker room after beating the Chicago Fire last weekend to reach the title game, they presented Checketts with the trophy they had just won and thanked him for his faith in the team he brought to Utah five years ago. The trophy now rests above a fireplace in the restaurant at Rio Tinto Stadium.
"They expressed gratitude to me for believing in them and sticking with them," Checketts recalled. "It was very, very gratifying. It was also very humbling."
Winning the championship probably would have the same effect -- and then some.