Utah's heroes celebrate the state's first ever professional sports championship.
The struggles of Real Salt Lake as a new franchise are long gone. They have established themselves as heroes in the state. With RSL’s unlikely arrival in the playoffs and amazing MLS Cup run, they brought Utah its first professional sports championship. When asked about this, Coach Jason Kreis said he had a feeling their win would “really, really” mean a lot to Utah and the fans. I know it means a lot to me. And from the looks of it, it means a lot to many other Utahns as well.
Real Salt Lake could not have done it all in more dramatic fashion. Having lost their second-to-last regular season game, their playoff hopes were hanging on a thread. There were three teams that had to lose in order for them to keep any hope of taking a step into the tournament. They did not back down. Rather, they thrived on the opportunity, beating Colorado 3-0 at home. As if by destiny, things played out just how RSL needed them.
In the first round of the playoffs, they knocked off the defending champion Columbus Crew, beating them first in Salt Lake City with a goal in the 88th minute and later in Columbus after rallying from a 2-0 deficit. Real then faced a daunting challenge from the Chicago Fire. Nick Rimando, RSL’s goalie, made three saves to win the game on penalty kicks, and Cuautemoc Blanco, a notorious soccer player from Mexico, departed the Fire in disappointing fashion thanks to Real. With that win, they moved on to face the Hollywood-esque dynasty from California, the L.A. Galaxy, starring league MVP Landon Donovan and English superstar David Beckham.
RSL liked being viewed as the underdogs by virtually everyone outside the state of Utah — it fueled them. Before the game, hundreds of RSL fans met at a plaza near the stadium and started chanting and waving flags before marching to Qwest Field, many of them enduring a 30-hour round trip to watch their team in the final. It was an impressive, if not intimidating, act by RSL fans showing just how confident they were in their team, and just how much they wanted to bring home the championship cup. There was no such showing by Galaxy fans.
The championship game came down to penalty kicks once again and Rimando pushed his team to victory with two more saves, making him the MVP of the game after Robbie Russell made the final goal to seal the deal. The joy Russell had after his goal ended the game literally brought him to his knees. The team ran toward him with pure euphoria and Russell was suddenly at the bottom of a dogpile.
After the game, Coach Kreis and the players expressed their confidence and the belief they had in each other. Kries got the last laugh, saying “I told you so” to the millions watching on ESPN. In his post-game interview, Rimando said “the underdog has the championship now.” Voices were shot from all the yelling. Tears were shed. Fans were hugging perfect strangers in celebration of the victory. People at home were jumping up and down, finally knowing what it feels like to win a championship.
RSL’s momentum has propelled their popularity. Clint Mathis, the team’s veteran and one-time star of the U.S. men’s national team, was elated and surprised by the hundreds of people that greeted the team at the airport when they returned from Seattle. Wearing his emotion on his sleeve, he said, “This is great. This is something you don’t see in America for soccer at all.”
That just might be changing. On media day before the MLS Cup, there were few reporters expected. In past years, there had been just a handful of journalists asking a few questions. This year, there were many more reporters, even international media anxious to ask questions of the players and coaching staff. Within the past month alone, RSL has doubled their fan base on Facebook, from 6,000 to well over 13,000 people. (The page gained over 1,000 fans while I was writing this article.) So much for a team taking root in the community. Dave Checketts, owner of the club, said it best in a speech to the team after the championship game: “It’s one thing to win a championship. Now you’ve got to build a dynasty. Now, with the new stadium and a championship, there’s nothing that’s gonna stop us.” I feel the same way.
Randal Serr is an occasional sports correspondent for Rhombus. He also covers politics for the magazine.