Real Salt Lake on the rise once again in its most trying season
Real Salt Lake scored three first-half goals to beat the New York Red Bulls last week. Days later, it allowed four first-half goals as D.C. United rolled.
"The highs and lows of our season put into a week," RSL coach Jason Kreis said.
Since late August, however, there have been many more highs than lows to Real's season. Following its lowest point last month, when even hosting a Wild Card playoff appeared to be in jeopardy, RSL has become the hottest team in Major League Soccer.
As August made the turn into September, Real Salt Lake ripped off five consecutive victories, earning 15 points and threatening Seattle for second place in the Western Conference and perhaps setting itself up for a late run at the Supporters Shield, which goes to the MLS team with the best regular-season record.
During the league's longest winning streak of the season, RSL won road games against Seattle and New York two places it had never won before.
And just that quickly, RSL is once again one of the elite teams in MLS.
"This group has been through so much together," Kreis said prior to Wednesday's game at Rio Tinto Stadium against the Chicago Fire. "We're not going to put a ton of weight into reading the stuff that says we're the greatest team ever when we win a game at New York and we're not going to put a ton of weight into reading the stuff saying we're the worst team ever when we lost at D.C."
Kreis then pinpointed why RSL has managed to become, according to point totals, the third best team in Major League Soccer:
"We'll be focused on the next game."
For Real Salt Lake, this season has been its most difficult since 2007, when the team began the season with six losses and five ties.
Since late March, players and coaches have experienced just about everything imaginable. There were the highs of four-game unbeaten streak to start the MLS season and a historic run that saw RSL come within a whisker of claiming the league's first CONCACAF Champions League title.
Then, as summer wound into fall, RSL responded to a stretch of four losses in five games by reeling off five consecutive victories.
Why all the ups and downs?
Thanks to injuries and international duty, Real has not fielded the same starting lineup for more than two consecutive games. And Real lost its MVP candidate, Javier Morales, six games into the MLS season.
Earlier in the season at New England, in the midst of RSL's run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, Kreis made nine changes to his starting lineup. Real won that game 2-0.
Kreis took the same kind of gamble at D.C. United essentially he was resting starters on the back end of a two-game road trip and lost.
Yet, here RSL stands, with five games remaining in the season, a playoff spot clinched and sights set on at least second place in the Western Conference. And Kreis still believes RSL can win the Supporters Shield.
"It's how you respond to things that are important," RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "Jason has done a great job. To still be sitting in an automatic qualifier spot ... is a real credit to him and a real credit to our players, too. It's been a real long year this year in terms of the number of games and the number of months."
Even when RSL was losing four of five, this veteran team's players never made excuses.
If attitude is set at the top, then Kreis and Real captain Kyle Beckerman can take credit for keeping things on an even keel. On the field, Beckerman played well enough to generate talk of a MVP award.
"He stepped up," RSL midfielder Will Johnson said. "He took the role of Javier's, and being a captain he is doing what a captain does. I don't know if any player has been more valuable to his team. He's just really a top professional."
As RSL faces the stretch run to the playoffs, it knows that it is a team getting healthy at just the right time. For the first time since his ankle injury May 7, Morales will most likely, circumstances allowing, see time on the field.
In addition, defender Chris Wingert's broken wrist is healing on schedule.
"We've learned a lot of lessons that will help for years to come," Beckerman said. "We've got 15 wins on the year, which is a great accomplishment.
"When we lost four of five we didn't think we were that bad, and when we won five in a row we didn't think we were that great."
The season has been all about improvement and keeping one goal, after all of the others have vanished an MLS Cup.
"This has been the most difficult season I can remember," Kreis said. "Since 2008 on really, the team has challenged us as a staff to gauge the players, to gauge their form, to gauge their fatigue level, to play players out of position. ... It's certainly been trying and I think when we get a moment ... [we'll] take a breath and say we did a pretty darn good job."
If the MLS playoffs started Wednesday
Pts GP GD
x-L.A. Galaxy 61 30 22
x-Seattle 54 30 17
x-RSL 51 29 14
Pts GP GD
Houston 42 31 0
Columbus 41 30 -3
Sporting K.C. 41 30 6
Pts GP GD
FC Dallas 46 30 3
Colorado 42 31 1
Philadelphia 40 29 6
New York 39 30 5
x-clinched playoff spot
Chicago Fire at Real Salt Lake
P At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff • Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. TV • None
Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM
Records • Chicago 6-8-15, RSL 15-8-6
All-time series • Fire, 5-3-5
Last meeting • 0-0 (June 26, 2011)
About the Fire • The Fire have won four of their past five games, and beat New England on Sunday.
About RSL • Chris Wingert made his first appearance since Aug. 13, missing six matches with a broken wrist. â¦ Javier Morales will be a part of the 18-man game-day roster.