One by one, members of Real Salt Lake shuffled into the downtown office Monday night preparing to put an official end to the 2013 Major League Soccer season. Players walked in and out for their end-of-year physicals marking the final act of this particular group, one that turned heads, finished with 56 regular-season points, a Western Conference title, and ultimately, lost in a whirlwind of a finale in Saturday’s MLS Cup final at Sporting Park.
The marathon penalty-kick shootout which reached 20 penalty attempts hasn’t left the minds of the players, and realistically it may never escape their consciousness.
"To be honest, I’m still in a little bit disbelief," said defender Tony Beltran. "It’s just so strange to a lose a game, played in that manner, in those conditions, to go that far in a PK shootout and lose like that, it’s just something I’ve never experienced before. It’s quite strange. I just think on a different night, we walk home with a trophy."
"It’s tough, but there was really, I think, some awesome things to get into those positions that maybe we take for granted, and you don’t just get placed into a big game, you’re going to have to win some big games to get there," said captain Kyle Beckerman.
Javier Morales said the disappointment of losing a final lingers, but he looks at what his team accomplished, making it to another cup final and another 50-point season on the belt of the franchise.
"I like to look forward, and I think we have a lot of chances to repeat finals," he said. "Maybe that goal, when I chipped it, it goes in, maybe we’re talking something different. It was an inch difference. I want to look that way. Everyone is mad right now, everyone is sad because everyone wanted to win this final, but we couldn’t because I think it just was unlucky for us."
Couldn’t be a more appropriate description for this RSL team, one that was a few breaks away from winning Supporters’ Shield, the U.S. Open Cup final and the MLS Cup final.
"That’s why you play sports — nothing’s guaranteed," Beckerman said. "You’ve got to go earn it, and you’ve got to work hard for it. We know it’s tough. We feel like if we can keep putting ourselves in these big games, that we’re going to win the next one and win the next one and that’s all we can do is put ourselves in important games."
Said Beltran on the end of 12-month campaign: "It’s been certainly difficult and interesting reflecting on it, but that’s you have to do, you have to learn from it and take it as an experience and next time we’re in that position we continue to be in that position so we don’t have to go through that again."
Defender Chris Wingert echoed his teammates.
"There’s nothing else to do but move on, and it is part of playing sports, especially for a profession, so you’re going to come across some tough losses and you’re going to have to get back in there and do what you do," he said. "It doesn’t get easier, that’s for sure. Maybe when it’s all said and done, and I’m in a different part of my life, but certainly losing a big game does not get easier. When it’s the biggest thing in your life at that point, and you don’t accomplish your goal that you set out to accomplish, then it’s extremely disappointing, but again it’s a part of playing sport."
I asked Wingert if walking away from this season without a major cup trophy made it any more difficult to stomach considering how well the team gelled and filled the variety of uncertainties in a long season that ended on a frozen pitch in Kansas.
"Jason [Kreis] said this on a number of different occasions and I totally buy into this, there’s only a certain amount of teams that you’re going to be on in your life and in your career that have an opportunity to win a championship and that are good enough to possibly win, and this was one of those teams," he said, "so to not win one is extremely disappointing."
The players also addressed the potential of returning the training camp sometime presumably in late January with a different head coach. Kreis is in the process of making a decision between staying with RSL and making a move to MLS’ 20th expansion franchise, New York City FC, which joins league play in 2015.
"If that happens, I wish him all the luck in the world," Beltran said. "He’s a fantastic man. Fantastic leader, and that’s what happens with great men; they want new challenges and when presented with that opportunity, I would imagine he may take it. So if that does happen, obviously we’ll be sad to see him go, but we’ll have to look at it as a new challenge as ourselves."
"It’s just the evolution of the club, I think," Beckerman said. "[Jason is] going to be a part of that — he’s part of the fabric of this club no matter where he is."
The off-season will be rapid-fire for RSL as the club awaits Kreis’ decision and begins constructing the 2014-version of the roster starting this week with the MLS Re-Entry Draft and the 2014 MLS SuperDraft in January.
Suffice to say, there will be a lot of news in the next six weeks.
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