In the middle of the Major League Soccer season, Real Salt Lake leads the Western Conference standings and is being threatened by Portland.
So, naturally, Wednesday night’s game between RSL and the Timbers at Rio Tinto Stadium meant nothing — in an MLS context, anyway.
Even in Real’s ninth year of existence, this concept of another in-season competition remains a little weird to me. But these guys were treating the U.S. Open Cup like big stuff even before taking a 2-1 semifinal victory, and they deserve whatever degree of validation comes with it.
RSL’s core players have competed in a bunch of meaningful games over these last six seasons, so they should recognize one when they’re in it.
"It did have that feeling," said RSL defender Chris Wingert. "We knew how much was riding on it."
And now, this tournament will serve up a genuine championship game at Rio Tinto: RSL vs. surprise finalist D.C. United, on Oct. 1.
"For American sports fans, it’s just difficult to fathom, having a completely different tournament within the regular season," said RSL defender Nat Borchers, who’s from Colorado. "But growing up in soccer culture, it’s kind of the norm — just another opportunity to get the silverware."
Trophies, I understand. And nearly four years after bringing home the MLS Cup, this team needs more to show for its consistent performance.
"For this group," Borchers said after Tuesday’s practice, "we’ve been so good for so long that there comes a point in time where you’re going to look back and say, ‘Well, what have you won?’ This is a big opportunity for us to win something and put it in the trophy case and say we did it."
That’s why RSL coach Jason Kreis prioritized this tournament, and his approach is working.
"We looked at our schedule this year and we looked at the depth of our team and the makeup of it, and said this is the year for us to really, really go at this thing," said Kreis, who once won a U.S. Open Cup as a Dallas player. "We’d better take every chance we can to try to win trophies."
Some reserves and complementary players may have helped Real reach this stage of the tournament, but the team’s usual stars emerged in the first half against Portland.
They produced two of the season’s most memorable plays for RSL. Alvaro Saborio headed a crossing pass from Kyle Beckerman into an upper corner of the net in the seventh minute. Late in the half, goalkeeper Nick Rimando made a phenomenal save of a point-blank shot from former teammate Will Johnson.
In the 78th minute, that depth surfaced as substitute Joao Plata delivered a high shot that beat Portland goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, with assists from Saborio and Beckerman.
Diego Valeri’s late goal for Portland made RSL’s fans in the crowd of 14,472 agonize for the final few minutes of stoppage time, but the home team survived.
Practical applications are in play now for RSL, which can earn a Champions League berth and MLS allocation money by winning this tournament. In the meantime, Real launches a three-game series — stretched over two months — against Portland in MLS play Aug. 21.
Those games will count heavily in the standings, determining playoff positioning. Yet none of those contests, by itself, will mean more to RSL than this victory. Well, that’s this team’s story, which may help explain Wednesday’s outcome.
Even before the semifinal contest, Kreis found himself picturing a championship game in Sandy. He was reliving some big-time opportunities that his team has failed to take advantage of at Rio Tinto, and he already recognizes RSL will be favored over D.C. United in October. "We’ll see if we can do what we’ve never done before," he said, "which is actually win of those damn games."
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