Real Salt Lake finally puts its 'A' team on the field
Lehi • It has been six months since Real Salt Lake fielded its strongest lineup.
But there that group was Tuesday, running through its practice paces at Xango Field in chilly, pull-up-the-collar conditions. Nobody seemed to mind the weather, though. RSL's players and coaches were thrilled to have everybody finally back in the fold with the Major League Soccer playoff opener against Seattle just days away.
"It does seem like it's been a while since we've had everybody," RSL midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman said. "I know we're all excited. Today everybody was buzzing about."
Here's the question: Now that the team, which entered the season touted as one of MLS's most talented, is finally back in one piece, can it get over the hump Saturday against the Sounders in the opening leg of the Western Conference semifinals?
Despite crawling to the regular-season finish line with four losses and two ties in its final six games, RSL (15-11-8) believes it is now fully armed for a lengthy postseason run. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.
"We've got a big chip on our shoulder going into this," RSL defender Nat Borchers said. "We know what's on the line."
There is a difference between knowing what is on the line and rising to the challenge.
Yet, if you believe coach Jason Kreis, the progress made from the 0-0 tie at Colorado to the 1-1 result Saturday against Portland was huge.
A 15-second lapse of concentration was, Kreis said, the only thing that kept RSL from coming away with a victory last Saturday against the Timbers. The team played better than it had in nearly a month, since a 2-1 loss at Los Angeles.
"It's a good feeling to think we may be able to put up our strongest lineup for the playoffs for the very first [playoff] game," Kreis said "In an ideal world we would have liked to have been having that for a few weeks now to get into a real rhythm."
However, he added, "We feel like our guys have been around each other long enough, it shouldn't take much time for them to jell."
It's been about six months since RSL midfielder Javier Morales went down with a fractured ankle. Four games in since his return and Morales appears close to top form.
Chris Wingert missed time with a fractured wrist. Will Johnson, Ned Grabavoy and Tony Beltran have been bothered with various leg injuries. But only Beltran remains questionable.
Then, there has been time lost to the team from international duty. Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson have been among a handful of players to have played for their respective countries.
Three weeks ago against Vancouver, Kreis didn't have enough players to fill out his 18-man game-time roster.
Then, there was Beckerman, who missed the final three regular-season games due to a red card suspension.
But they're all back now.
"It's exciting," Johnson said. "We all missed playing together. It's good to have Becks back. Beck and Javier are our two leaders. We need them out there together."
Meanwhile, Seattle (18-7-9) finished with 63 points and the No. 2 seed in the west behind No. 1 LA Galaxy (67 points).
RSL, as the three seed, is the underdog. Which is just fine with Real.
"We know we have the talent, we know we have the guys who can do it," Johnson said. "Nobody is picking us to win the thing, and [we] wouldn't want it any other way. Our team and our fan base embrace that mentality.
"We like flying under the radar. The more people think we're a bad team the better."
RSL signs Manning to contract extension
Real Salt Lake has signed team president Bill Manning to a four-year contract extension.
Terms of Manning's contract, which runs through June 30, 2015, were not disclosed. Prior to his relocation to Utah, Manning, 46, served for four years as vice president of sales and service for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Since Manning was hired by RSL founder and owner Dave Checketts at the start of the 2008 season, the team has gone from a $7 million overall operating loss to a positive cash flow in 2011. Revenue has grown 271 percent and an increase in sponsorship dollars from $1.6 million to $6.3 million.
On the field, RSL won the MLS Cup in 2009 and became the first North American team to advance to the CONCACAF championship game this past spring.
"It's a vote of confidence to go that long with someone," Checketts said of the contract extension. "No doubt, we have really good chemistry with Bill."
Even now, while RSL prepares for the 2011 playoffs and an opportunity to regain the MLS Cup it won in 2009, Manning looks to the future.
"We were in such a different position when we got here," Manning said. "The ship was almost sinking. We've got it turned around in the right direction. Now it's just solidifying that. When I first got here it was like an overhaul. Now it's fine-tuning."
P Seattle Sounders at Real Salt Lake
Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPN2