RSL’s season is over, but the franchise has taken a notable step forward as youth movement takes hold

Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird (27) celebrates his goal with teammates Jefferson Savarino (7) and Aaron Herrera (22) during the first half of an MLS soccer match against Sporting Kansas City in Kansas City, Kan., Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

After the first 45 minutes of Real Salt Lake’s loss to Sporting Kansas City on Sunday, it would have been easy to think the game was over. It would have been easy to think RSL’s season was over. It would have been easy to assume the team would just give up in a sudden realization that it was overmatched and its luck had run out.

But to assume that is also to assume RSL is the type of team that lays down, that gives up, that accepts what the outside world says about it.

If anything can be said about the 2018 version of Real Salt Lake, it’s this: All season long, Real has proven the exact opposite. And although the seasoned ended Sunday against Sporting KC, there are reasons to believe this team is just getting started.

“Take the playoffs out and I’m still proud of this group,” Kyle Beckerman said moments after Sunday’s game. “We improved, guys got tons of experience and we just built a lot of foundation for years to come.”

For a team that resides in media market where the Utah Jazz reign supreme, and employs a roster comprised mainly of 20-somethings looking to make their mark in Major League Soccer, Real Salt Lake found a way to make significant noise in the playoffs despite barely squeaking in on the last day of the season.

Of note was just how much of the young roster made their names not only on the team, but in the league. Corey Baird won Rookie of the Year, Justen Glad became a staple in the starting lineup, Aaron Herrera carved out an important role in the back line after suffering an injury to start the season, and the list goes on.

Beating Los Angeles Football Club on the road provided a glimpse of what this team could be. But that wasn’t the only time during the season Salt Lake did that.

There was the time RSL trounced the New England Revolution when it was missing five key starters. It’s true New England was at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with little to play for, but Real was undermanned and it was unclear at the time whether or not RSL could overcome that situation.

The best stretch was a 14-game home unbeaten streak that spanned from March to October. In the midst of that streak, Real Salt Lake won two consecutive games in which it scored six goals in each contest, becoming the first team in MLS history to do so. One of those games came on the road against Colorado.

But there were some rough patches along the way, particularly to close the season. RSL was disappointed after a home draw to Minnesota United, and gave up seven goals in two games to the Portland Timbers in games where points were paramount.

Salt Lake, however, upped its intensity when it officially qualified for the playoffs, possibly feeding off the idea that a large continent of people did not believe in them.

“I think for the club that we are right now, I think we perform better when we’re the underdog,” Nedum Onuoha said. “Because let’s say everyone writes us off and I think other teams, at times, can sort of overlook us. But with the quality that we have — both going forward and defending — and the desire to play for each other, I think it’s a massive strength for us and I hope it’s something that brings success.”

That mentality did bring success despite RSL not making it to the Western Conference finals. Beckerman said all postseason that he feels immense pride for the growth of the team as a whole. He thinks the playoff run will give next year’s RSL team some motivation.

“The hurt that we feel right now and everybody in the locker room, we’re all going to remember that,” Beckerman said. “That will spur us on for next year knowing that if we get in this spot again, remember what it feels like.”

RSL head coach Mike Petke reiterated that sense of pride after the game Sunday. He said the season was “a roller coaster at times, on and off the field,” but appeared to feel satisfied with how it ended.

“We went on a good run,” Petke said.