The Throw-In: One final job for RSL
"Well I guess there's only one thing left to do ... win the whole [effing] thing."
– Jake Taylor, Major League
If you remember the 1989 classic like I do, you remember the scene well. The ragtag but plucky Cleveland Indians had just been informed they were constructed as a band of misfits in order to be so bad, the owner would be able to move the team. It became a rallying point for The Tribe. And may or may not have been where Charlie Sheen got the idea of “tiger blood.”
Real Salt Lake are certainly not a band of underdog misfits. Well, they're no longer underdogs, at least (as for the other part, they do have some of the more creative hairstyles and body ink in MLS). But on Tuesday night, when their CONCACAF Champions League adventure came to an unlikely end in a scoreless home draw with Herediano, it did resemble their Major League moment.
Back in preseason, Jason Kreis told MLSsoccer.com that this was a final hurrah for RSL’s core, a group of relative overachievers and underdogs that shocked their way to the MLS Cup 2009 title, went all the way to the 2010-11 CCL finals and won more games over a three-season span than all but one MLS team.
That teasing taste of near-glory in continental play was the top of the mountain, and Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey chose to keep together their group of non-superstar everymen for 18 more months. It was a chance to return to the CCL finals and make one more run at another MLS Cup.
But that also made the picture a bit clearer. If this is truly the end for the nucleus of the Claret-and-Cobalt, there’s just one thing left to do: win the whole [effing] thing. That is, go for the MLS Cup. CONCACAF glory may be out of reach, but there’s one more chance for them to do something special as the playoffs approach.On Tuesday, half of that dream came to a screeching halt. It was a bit of poetic injustice as RSL once again saw a multitude of scoring chances go missing, and bowed out of the tournament on their home turf.
It would be an appropriate capper on RSL’s legacy. This is a team that has changed the way we think of success in MLS. Maybe a bit like Major League, Lagerwey and Kreis put together a group of cast-offs and undervalued players, never wavering from their philosophy that “the team is the star.”
It culminated in a fitting upset of the star-studded LA Galaxy in Seattle back in November of 2009. It continued the following season, when RSL morphed from an underdog into a perennial power, ripping off the first of three straight 50-point seasons.
Their aspirations became even clearer as Salt Lake became the first MLS club to truly hold the CONCACAF Champions League in high value, a sign that they could be part of something bigger. And their play in continental competition proved it, with huge results in Mexico and Costa Rica.
Through it all, they’ve played soccer the way it was meant to be played: with cleverness, with an unselfish, pass-first ethos. With an expertly executed midfield diamond that plays to their strengths. When it works, it’s truly the Beautiful Game.
But despite it all, the end of the era has been in sight over the past couple seasons. They’ve never fully replaced Robbie Findley, who left for Europe after the 2010 season. Steady hands like Robbie Russell and Andy Williams are now gone, and their locker-room presence has been difficult to replace.
Once the winners’ names are etched on the Philip F. Anschutz trophy at the end of these playoffs, the exodus could be even swifter.
Javier Morales’ DP-level contract is up – and for as much of an integral part of this team as he’s been, he hasn’t been the same since his horrific broken ankle last season. He’ll be 33 years old when First Kick 2013 rolls around, and it’s fair to wonder if he has it in him to return to that old magic.
Though he’s dominant, center back Jámison Olave spent much of 2012 injured. And as the most expensive defender on the roster – while youngsters Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe have stepped up – it’s not impossible to see RSL finally accepting one of those rumored offers from big South American clubs.
Other contracts are up, too, like those of Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran. And Kreis and Lagerwey will have to examine the cost-effectiveness of other players under the cap and balance those with the emergence of more young talent like Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez and David Viana. In fact, very quietly, RSL have become the seventh-youngest roster in MLS.
In boxing, they say it never ends pretty. In life, you don’t often get a chance for one last hurrah while knowing going into it that this really is the final ride for a group that has been through so many battles.
The old hands at RSL know this. Yes, it’s a Major League bummer that things didn’t work out in the Champions League. But as far as refocusing on the other goal, it seems like they get it.
"This is over,” Fabián Espíndola said after Tuesday’s elimination, “and we have to win the championship."
Not even Pedro Cerrano could have said it better.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.