So it is the time of year when most blogger/pundits/reporters put together their light of the highlights and lowlights of the past year, so it seemed only fitting that I take a look back at what was a very interesting year for Real Salt Lake. I started out wanting to look at the 5 best things and the 5 worse things of the year and found that the two lists were very similar and often the events were very intertwined with each other. For how long the MLS season is, just under 11 months, it was couple weeks that provided a lot of the material for my lists. Anyhow, here we go:
The Top 5 highlights of the 2013 RSL season
5. US Open Cup run – it seemed as if RSL had destiny on their side as each and every coin flip by US Soccer gave home field advantage to RSL and despite questionable starts in several of the matches RSL was able to advance to the Open Cup final, a level they had never reached before in the tournament. It was in the Open Cup run that we got to see Devon Sandoval really step out of the shadows of being a rookie and show his potential, something that would benefit RSL for the rest of the season. It was also great to see RSL pull in over 10,000 fans to each of their US Open Cup matches, in fact over the 5 matches RSL averaged over 14,000 fans, showing that a serious run at the USOC actually was important to both the club and the fans. In almost every match played RSL put out a lineup that featured most of their top players another indication of how the club viewed the importance of the tournament, I hope that we see this same level of commitment in years to come.
4. Extra time win over the LA Galaxy in playoffs – Over the years I think this has become one of the best “non-rivalries” in MLS, from the style of play on the pitch to the way the clubs are run there really aren’t two clubs as polar opposites in the league. So a highlight of the year has to be eliminating the Galaxy from the playoffs, and to do so in a match where some questionable calls again seemed to be strongly against RSL (hint this match should have ended in regulation time) just put a smile on the faces of all the RSL fans in the stands for that match. I thought it was interesting how much attention had been given to the combo of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane leading up to the series and how after it the talk was all about the duo of RSL centerbacks Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler.
3. MLS Cup – If anyone expected RSL to make it to MLS Cup at the start of the season, one might have questioned their sanity but that is exactly what happened. The ability to both qualify for the MLS Playoffs and then to advance in spite of the crazy playoff schedule and having to face two very good sides (LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers) were huge for RSL, and to have it done with RSL being forced to use their depth at forward as well on defense speaks volumes to me as where RSL is and where their future will be. While the final result of the match in KC wasn’t what RSL fans wanted the journey of making it to that point has to be counted as a great success.
2. 4-0-2 against Portland – In the past this would have been a non-factor of the season, but given that the Timbers spent most of the season as the darlings of MLS and to be fair were the most consistent side in the league with just 5 losses in league action. Defeating them in the US Open Cup, and both of the regular season draws in Portland were huge but nothing was more satisfying than crushing their dreams in both legs of the Western Conference final. The final revenge however was Portland’s as MLS got approval of their change to who qualifies for CONCACAF Champions League, and it will be the Timbers taking part in the 2014/15 version of the tournament as the regular season Western Conference Champions.
1. New Blood leads the way – I think for me beyond the results which you can take either as a good or bad thing, the way that new players stepped up all year long was impressive. It may not have been easy for some, but I think the minutes played in 2013 by guys like Carlos Salcedo, Devon Sandoval, Olmes Garcia, and others. 27 players for RSL had first team minutes in 2013, 25 had more than 200 minutes and 18 had more than 800 minutes of MLS action for RSL in 2013, that is a huge number that proves the depth of the team. With the core of the last 6 seasons getting older, having younger players playing a bigger role speaks volumes about how RSL plan to maintain their high level of performance well into the future.
The 5 low points of the 2013 RSL season
5. Injuries & Call ups – the depth of RSL was tested early and often in 2013 as we saw injuries to a number of players (Saborio, Grabavoy, Watson-Siriboe, Schuler, Saunders, Wingert, Grossman, Stertzer, Balchan and others) that forced RSL to change their lineup and even their formation more than anyone was used to. Then you add in the national team call ups for Saborio, Luis Gil, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, and Abdoulie Mansally, and you can understand why RSL was forced to use 27 different players in MLS action this season. One can only wonder what might have been if we had been able to avoid some of those players missing during the season, would there have been 3 or 4 more points?
4. Officiating nightmares – It is a horse that gets beaten all the time, and if you watch enough other sports or soccer leagues you know that mistakes happen in all leagues. My issue is rarely the mistakes that are made but more often the complete lack of consistency and/or apparent accountability for mistakes or inconsistency. We saw it time and time again in 2013, perhaps no matches had more questionable calls than two matches between RSL and Sporting KC this year, and there were plenty of calls that went against both sides (Wingert’s early foul on Kamara, no calls on Collin in Cup, mystery added time in regular season match). You can look at many other matches played by RSL or any MLS team to see that one of the highest needs for improvement is overall quality of officiating in MLS.
3. MLS Cup loss – There is never a good way to lose a match but it just wasn’t meant to be as evidenced by the 3 shots that went off the frame. Still for over 1,500 RSL fans to show up, despite the ticketing issues to see the match go to PK’s had to renew hope that we would lift the cup, but after the longest shootout in MLS Cup history it was a shot off the crossbar that ended the dream for RSL. Given the conditions of the pitch, the calls and non-calls, it was a tough match to watch for long stretches but you rarely have seen two teams play with so much passion and heart as you saw in this match. In a season of almost this was a painful one for fans and players alike.
2. US Open Cup final loss – Losing the MLS Cup final to SKC on the road was a heartbreaker, but losing a championship match at home again devastated RSL fans, players and staff. What made the US Open Cup final lost even worse is that DC United wasn’t a very good team; they played ugly soccer in the match and took advantage of a rather flukish goal to win the Open Cup. For RSL to host each of their US Open Cup matches defied the odds, and to see it all end in such a wrong way well it really defined a season of almost.
1. Losing Jason Kreis – Perhaps the biggest almost of the year was the harshest blow to many, had a real offer been made to Jason Kreis prior to the start of the 2013 we may have avoided losing him to NYCFC, but when you leave a door open things can happen. I don’t think after the midseason trip to Manchester that many of us thought that RSL was going to be able to hold on to Jason as their head coach, but we hoped, and for months when Jason said he hadn’t made up his mind we hoped even harder, but in the end few were surprised that he choose to leave RSL. I don’t think it was the bright lights of New York City, or the big paycheck or potential payroll of working for MCFC that lured Jason away, I think it was a chance to be bold, a chance to step out of the comfort zone he had created with RSL and to see what might be. A chance to learn more by joining a club that has pushed itself into the top tier of worldwide soccer, a chance to take a leap of faith and try to do something special. It is hard for me to wish for anything but the best for Jason, there will be many challenges for NYCFC as they prepare to enter MLS and in their first few years but worrying about their head coach won’t be one of them. RSL quickly announced the promotion of Jeff Cassar to head coach, a move that should ensure that many of the concepts and ideas that have made the club a beacon of consistency and success should remain in place for years to come.
So as you can see the best parts of the RSL season often ended up in an almost that defined the season, but in a year when very few people expected much from RSL the team proved that they are one of the elite teams in MLS history as the first team to have 4 straight 15 win/50 point seasons, 6 straight years in the playoffs and 4 conference finals in the last 6 seasons. All while playing in the smallest market, all while avoiding big name/big paycheck DP’s and by working together on and off the pitch to establish more than just a soccer team, in establishing the RSL Family. Have a Happy New Year, and we are just weeks away from players reporting for the preseason.
That’s How I See It