It’s easy to forget now, after a nine-month season left last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners out of the playoffs, but back in March, the San Jose Earthquakes were still considered one of the Western Conference’s favorites. How much that changed after Real Salt Lake went into Buck Shaw and won on opening day is difficult to remember, but in hindsight, the victory served early notice. RSL were supposed to be rebuilding. Instead, they handed San Jose their only home loss of the season.
Jason Kreis’s team didn’t exactly burst out the gate, though. A loss at D.C. United, draw at Colorado, and loss to FC Dallas followed. Before closing March with a win over Seattle, Real Salt Lake looked very much like a team going through an adjustment period, which they were. In addition to trading Jámison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espindola in the offseason, RSL were without the injured Javier Morales, Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert for the first four games of the season. The spine of Álvaro Saborío, Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Borchers and Nick Rimando didn’t play together until April 13 – the team’s sixth game of the season.
Over the next 17 games, between league play and the U.S. Open Cup, Real Salt Lake would go on the run that would establish their contenders’ credentials – a 12-2-3 stretch that pushed the team to the top of the conference and into the Open Cup semifinals. Still, the team wasn’t quote whole. Injuries to Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe had forced young Carlos Salcedo into action in defense. When he wasn’t with Costa Rica, Saborío was having trouble staying healthy, while the callups of Rimando, Beckerman, and Tony Beltran for the Gold Cup were testing the teams depth. When Sporting Kansas City took a contested 2-1 victory out of Rio Tinto in late July (Ike Opara scoring the winner in the 97th minute), RSL was missing five starters for what began of a three-match winless run.
August’s return to Open Cup play brought the Portland Timbers onto the schedule, a team Real Salt Lake would go on to beat four times in 2013. Over the course of the month, RSL would go 2-0-1 against the West’s eventual one-seed, the team’s 4-2-1 month helping the squad move on to from July’s rocky finish.
Yet come September, the bumps were back, with the team losing back-to-back games to Seattle and San Jose. And on Oct. 1, RSL suffered the biggest setback of their campaign, losing a U.S. Open Cup final at home to D.C. United. Looking back on the stretch, Jason Kreis would later confess to not knowing what he had with his team. Did he have a contender? Or would 2013 really be a step back for Real Salt Lake?
Nobody knew for sure until the playoffs. Closing the regular season with two draws and a win (over Chivas USA) earned RSL the West’s second seed, but they’d also be paried with the two-time defending champions LA Galaxy. Perhaps the uncertainty led Kreis to change his tactics for the postseason opener in LA, a move he would later describe as a mistake, but headed back to Rio Tinto for their conference semifinal’s second leg, RSL were tasked with turning around a 1-0 deficit.
It was only after RSL had done so, winning 2-0 in Sandy, that everything truly came together. Two-plus weeks later, after the team had eliminated Portland 5-2 in the Western Conference final, players and staff talked about the importance of the LA second leg in a way that transcended an elimination game victory. In going back to their tried-and-true system – forgetting the 4-2-3-1 they tried in Carson – Real Salt Lake had affirmed their identity, giving them confidence they’d lacked through most of the fall. It wasn’t just that they’d beat the Galaxy, doing what nobody else had done since 2010. They’d done it by going back to what makes them RSL.
Ultimately, that’s what’s defined their 2013. It’s been RSL’s search for self. Offseason changes and early season injures obscured their identity this spring. After their summer surge, they were back on their heels come fall. Yet come mid-November, all the pieces had fallen into place.
The RSL team we’ll see on Saturday won’t be much different than the teams that have defined the club’s success since 2009, even if that success hasn’t been so straight forward in 2013.