PORTLAND -- The Western Conference Championship trophy presentation didn’t lack for pomp or passion on Sunday night at Jeld-Wen Field. There were confetti cannons and some fireworks, and while it wasn’t the MLS Cup, nor was it in the club's home stadium, Real Salt Lake celebrated it to the fullest. The team’s players posed with the trophy and partied late into the Oregon night.
It might have seemed like an odd reaction for a team that won an MLS Cup title just four years ago, but those four years have been an exercise in futility for a club that has, arguably, played the best soccer in MLS for the past five seasons.
You see, Sunday’s trophy presentation was the first one RSL could actually take part in since that 2009 MLS Cup Final. In the four years since, RSL has come out on the losing end in multiple finals, watching teams celebrate on its own home-field multiple times. You had the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final, when Monterrey beat RSL to clinch the regional championship. There was also a 2010 West final loss to FC Dallas that came as a surprise, the 2011 playoff loss to the LA Galaxy, and more recently the 2013 U.S. Open Cup final, which RSL lost to lowly D.C. United at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“For me, the most rewarding thing is not about getting back to the MLS Cup,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said. “The most rewarding thing is that this group has finally won another trophy.
“Frankly, in my honest opinion, and I’m sure it’s not everybody’s, this team deserves more trophies than they have. They’ve put themselves in position to win so many times and have just been unfortunate not to. So I think this is a very deserving trophy, both for what we’ve done this season, but more so for what we’ve done for five years now.”
Sunday’s celebration was cathartic for an RSL team that has stuck to its core principles of soccer despite repeated big-game defeats, and even in the midst of losing three of its best players a year ago. It was the sweet relief of having a trophy to raise in a year when none were really expected to come for a team in transition.
“In the beginning of the season, I would have said we’ll barely make the playoffs,” Kreis said of RSL. “We’re going to be very inconsistent. We’re going to win a game, we’re going to lose a game. We’re going to win two games, and lose two games. We’re going to have good performances and turn around bad performances.
“But the team has proven me wrong, and that doesn’t happen too often. I’m usually the one that’s always confident and talking positively, even when they may not deserve it. But truth be known, they’ve outlasted any expectations I had of them, and they’ve now found their form and their self identity at the exact right time.”
With a signature series victory against two-time defending champion Los Angeles, as well as a convincing series win against Portland, RSL now heads into the 2013 MLS Cup Final as a bit of an underdog against a Sporting KC side that has played the best defense in the league. Sporting beat RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium in the only meeting of the season between the teams.
Sporting might be the favorite, but the way RSL is playing right now, it is hard to bet against the club regaining the MLS Cup it first won four years ago. Real has gotten the hang of winning big games on the road, and will be looking to be on the more enjoyable end of having a visiting team celebrate a championship in an enemy stadium.
RED BULLS PART WAYS WITH PEARCE
- Sports & Recreation
- MLS Cup