Ultimate loser could be king of MLS
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Real Salt Lake doesn’t like the question and Major League Soccer may not like the answer to the issue of whether the Utah club can create a piece of American sports history this weekend in Seattle.
RSL takes on the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS title game on Sunday, and if victorious, it will become the first club in modern times in any major sport to win a championship after finishing the regular season with a losing record.
“It sounds like we had better not even go,” barked head coach Jason Kreis during an interview on Tuesday. “I mean, we don’t have a chance, do we?”
Kreis’s side went 11-12-7 during the regular season, squeezing into the eighth and final playoff slot by a single point. From then on, they have gone on a tear, ousting defending champion Columbus Crew and going on the road to sink the Chicago Fire and superstar Cuauhtemoc Blanco in the Eastern Conference final.
There is no doubt that if Real Salt Lake pulls off another upset at Qwest Field, then it will deserve its title. These are the rules of the league and they are the same for everybody.
“I have a lot of belief in this team not based on results,” Kreis said. “Not based on the fact that we were the eighth-place finisher in the league this year. I have a lot of faith in this team because I know what they’re capable of, and at the moment, they’re playing close to their capability and close to their potential.”
However, having a sub-500 team as champion would create a thorny problem for MLS. It also would raise concerns that the current playoff format offers too little reward for several months of toil during the year.
Most leagues in world soccer operate on a single-table format without playoffs, meaning the team with the most points at the end of the season is crowned champion. Finding a balance between staying true to the roots of the sport and fitting in with a typical American sports model is a significant challenge.
Right now, MLS has no plans to significantly alter its system and feels it has no need to do so. With the league likely to expand to 20 teams within a few years, leaving the number of playoff participants at eight would then seem more fitting than it does with the current number of 15 clubs.
What is clear is that RSL has used the mild whiff of controversy surrounding its record as extra motivation throughout the regular season, creating an even tighter sense of unity before it takes on David Beckham, Landon Donovan and their Galaxy colleagues.
“The team is the star for us,” Kreis said. “So I find it fitting that as we prepare for a team with two of the league’s brightest stars, we shall see if our star – the collective team – can measure up to theirs.”
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, the hero of a dramatic penalty shootout that saw off Chicago, agreed.
“We’re a good team when things are on the line and we’ve proven that,” he said. “When teams and the media don’t think we’re going to win and don’t give us a shot, I think that’s when we pick our game up.”
The Galaxy go into the game a heavy favorite, which is not surprising given their recent form, better record and much higher payroll. But will those factors make a difference on Sunday?
“I don’t think any of us focus on who are the underdogs or anything like that,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “Very little separates one team from the other. Let me tell you, Real Salt Lake was not a team with a record of six more losses than wins this year or something. They were a team that was right up there. They’ve been a competitive team throughout the season.”
Critics of MLS would use RSL’s record as another stick with which to beat the league if Kreis and his battlers can lift the trophy. League bosses would try to spin it to highlight how their competition is one of the most open and evenly matched in the world. Either way, Jason Kreis and Real Salt Lake don’t care much, as they eye another upset, a gleaming trophy and an unlikely championship.