They’re not the Yankees of Major League Soccer.
Or the Lakers.
They came out of nowhere in a way that might recall New Orleans’ Super Bowl season. But at least the Saints had a strong enough regular season where their playoff run was no stunner.
However, like the Yankees, Lakers and Saints, Real Salt Lake is its league’s champion. And that MLS Cup in the trophy case will be remembered far beyond the 11-12-7 record that snuck the team into the league’s final playoff spot.
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From there, Real Salt Lake negotiated a tough playoff road all the way to its penalty-kick victory over Los Angeles in the 2009 MLS Cup at Qwest Field.
“They were able to kind of squeak into the playoffs and kind of run that momentum and win the thing,” Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller said this week. “There will be a little bit of a target on their back, but at the same time, I don’t worry about that kind of stuff. If we play the way that we’re capable of playing, then we should be able to win games.”
Tonight, the Sounders get to test themselves against the league champions at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
Before the opening kick, RSL will celebrate its championship by awarding MLS Cup rings to the 17 players and four coaches who won the title and remain with the team. The club also will hoist a banner commemorating the club’s first domestic championship of its five-season existence.
“I think it gives validation to some of the things that we were trying to do in terms of the team philosophy and just the team as a whole: the player-friendly, player-centric organization we’ve tried to build,” said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. “I think it’s an indication that you’re going in the right direction.”
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid has won MLS Cups with the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Columbus Crew. And while those clubs took more traditional routes to their MLS Cup – each also won Supporters Shields, marking the league’s best regular-season record – Schmid understands the impact that a championship can have on a club’s expectations and confidence.
And he believes he is seeing something of that in Real Salt Lake this season.
“I think it’s helped them,” Schmid said. “When you watch them in the first two games, I think they’re a much more confident team. There’s a far great belief that they have in themselves as a collective because they were able to win that championship. Because, when you look at it, they were a .500 team. But after winning that championship, they say, ‘Hey, we’re capable of more,’ and they believe that.”
RSL opened this season with a 3-0 win at San Jose. But it stumbled, 2-1, at Houston last week.
With their home opener upon them, they say their championship hasn’t yet translated into a surge in season-ticket sales. But the club believes its MLS Cup has gotten the attention of fans who haven’t paid much attention since their expansion season of 2005.
“I think it helps establish us in the community,” Lagerwey said. “We were able to embark on a tour of the whole state of Utah, and we now have entire towns coming to a game this season. The number of times in which I’ve talked to people since November when they’ve said, ‘I’ve never seen a Real Salt Lake game before, but I watched the final and it was the most amazing soccer game I’ve every seen. I can’t wait to check them out this season.’
“I really think it’s given us some buzz. The word everybody uses about Seattle is that soccer’s relevant there. We played the final up there, and that was what was really neat: The people in that community knew about the game. We have a long way to go to become a Seattle, but we’re hopefully on the road to relevancy.”
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808
Seattle Sounders FC Gameday
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (1-1-0; 3 pts.) at REAL SALT LAKE (1-1-0; 3)
Kickoff: 6 p.m., Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah.
TV: KONG 6/16.
Radio: 97.3-FM, 1210-AM (Spanish).
Head-to-head: Split two meetings last season. The Sounders won, 2-0, in Seattle; RSL won, 1-0, in Utah. This season’s return match is Sept. 9 in Seattle.
Team leaders: For Seattle – G 1, Brad Evans and Fredy Montero; A 1, three players tied; S 12, Montero; SOG 3, Steve Zakuani. For RSL – G 3, Javier Morales; A 1, five players tied; S 5, Fabian Espindola; SOG 3, Morales.
Freddie Ljungberg scouting report: “It’s going to be a tough game: They won the league. And last year when we played there they were quite physical, but they played well and we lost the game. So it’s going to be a tough one.”
Notes: Real Salt Lake is the defending MLS Cup champion. … RSL has never lost a home opener in its previous five seasons, going 2-0-3. … Since the Sounders’ visit to Utah last August, RSL is 5-0-2 at home and has outscored its opponents, 12-1. … This is Seattle’s first road game of the season. Last season, the Sounders went 5-5-5 away from home. … The only roster link between the clubs is M/D Nathan Sturgis, whom Seattle took from RSL in the 2009 expansion draft. … Morales has a share of the MLS scoring lead. He was named MLS player of the week after recording two goals and an assist in Salt Lake’s 3-0 opening win over San Jose. … RSL’s Pablo Campos (calf) is listed as doubtful. For Seattle, Ljungberg (back) and Zach Scott (quadriceps) are listed as probable.
Next: Noon April 17 vs. Kansas City at Qwest Field; KONG.
Don Ruiz, staff writer