Portland, Ore. • His hands on his hips, donning a backward cap and sporting a brand new Western Conference champion T-shirt, Ned Grabavoy took a long pause to assess his team’s run back to MLS Cup. It’s been a while since RSL last tasted a trophy, and there have been several instances of heartbreak along the way. Since winning MLS Cup in 2009 in Seattle as an underdog, RSL has come very close to adding hardware to the trophy case at Rio Tinto, but not until Sunday night in Portland had they accomplished that.
The 2011 loss to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League final at home.
The 2011 Western Conference final loss to L.A.
The 1-0 loss to D.C. United — the worst team in MLS — in the U.S. Open Cup final at Rio Tinto this October.
These were the moments that shaped this RSL team.
"Sometimes I think experience through failure as well is just as important," said Grabavoy.
Captain Kyle Beckerman echoed thoughts of Grabavoy when I asked him the same question: Why this group? Why of all the talented rosters since 2009 has this club figured and worked a way back to the MLS Cup final?
"It’s easy when things are going right," Beckerman said. "We’ve had to go through times when it’s been tough. Those are times when you see what you’re really worth."
Before entering the rowdy RSL locker room — celebratory playlist included Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, several remixes of hip hop songs I’m not hip to yet and lots of reggaeton — Jason Kreis posted up in the hallway below JELD-WEN Field to horde of microphones. He was open and insightful and honest of where this team was entering the playoffs and whether or not it had the makeup to make the run it now has.
I asked Kreis to put this run of matches, three in a row now in which RSL has played arguably its best soccer of 2013, when it matters most.
"At the beginning of the season, if we could’ve had this same exact conversation with everybody, I would’ve said, ‘We’ll barely make the playoffs, we’re going to be very inconsistent, we’re going to win a game, we’re going to lose a game, we’re going to win two games, we’re going to lose two games. We’re going to have good performances, and then we’re going to turn around and have bad performances,’" Kreis explained. "But the team has proven me wrong. And that doesn’t happen too often. I’m usually the one that’s always confident and talking positively even when sometimes they may not deserve it. But truth be known is that they have outlived or outlasted any expectations I’ve had for them, and they’ve now found their form and their self-identity at the exact right time, because we had gone through a month leading up to the playoffs where really I was looking out there going, ‘I’m not sure who these guys are. Seems that they’ve forgotten.’ But it’s more than just belief — it’s working hard. Giving everything you have for the team. And when we do that, we get results, and we got it again tonight."
Looking a bit past the technical matchup between RSL and Portland — clearly RSL’s experience and tactics and execution proved better in this series against the up-start Timbers — the most intriguing part of this run is how Kreis and the coaching staff and general manager Garth Lagerwey managed and molded this team heading into the season. It had a lot of questions, but it answered them with a fantastic late-summer showing, but struggled a bit late in the season.
"I think for me, the most rewarding thing is not about getting back to the MLS Cup," Kreis said. "The most rewarding thing is that finally this group has won a trophy. Another trophy. Frankly, in my honest opinion, and I’m sure it’s not everybody’s — this team deserves more trophies than they have. They’ve put themselves in a position to win so many times, and it’s just been unfortunate not to. So I think that this is a very deserved trophy. Both, for what we have done over the regular season and certainly in the playoffs, but more so for what we’ve done now for five years in a row."
Several players I’ve spoken to as of late have continuously said how tight this locker room is, how the new players and young players are the perfect compliment to the veterans already established on the team.
"A lot of the guys have been together for a while," Beckerman said. "The guys who’ve come into this team, who are new, they want to be a part of it. They know what’s going on here. They want to buy into the system."
I thought Luis Gil is kind of the unsung hero of this run by RSL. The highly-touted midfielder, who recently turned just 20, has been vital in Kreis’ midfield. I would say RSL’s midfield won that game tonight as Gil, Grabavoy, Beckerman and Javier Morales were everywhere all evening, really putting the kibosh on several Portland attacks. When things needed settling, one of those four were there. I also think Tony Beltran has rediscovered his form after struggling late in the season.
Enough can’t be said about forwards Robbie Findley and Devon Sandoval. Who would have thought a year ago that these two would be the tandem that paced RSL to the MLS Cup final? Nice to see Findley score such clutch goals for a team that has shown dedication to him.
"If Robbie’s healthy, I’ve said it for years — he makes our team a different team, and he makes our team the team that we want to be, and that we were in ’09, and what we built from ’08. He brings a different dynamic, he’s unselfish, such a team player," Beckerman said. "And Robbie’s the type of guy, he doesn’t need to score, and he can have a great game. And when he scores, as well, he makes us a much better team. "
Signing off from PDX. It was a wonderful 18 hours or so. Will have stories on RSL, MLS Cup and, of course, Sporting KC as the days go on.
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