Build It and They Will Come: RSL's Transformation Worth Noting
It's funny how things can go from one extreme to the other.
It's funny how a little elbow grease, work and determination will get you to where you need to go.
Funny the way things work out sometimes, isn't it?
This Sunday on Seattle's Qwest Field, a team comprised of once-dubbed "nobody's" or "has-beens" will be on the hook for an MLS Cup title.
No, it's not the Los Angeles Galaxy.
In 2007, Jason Kreis was a beleaguered fading star on a second-rate squad. The team had boatloads of talent, but it often saw nothing but circles in the win column.
With a surplus of high draft picks, a scoring machine that had a penchant to get lost in his own reflection and aging wonders, Real Salt Lake was headed toward oblivion.
The team's contract with the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium was up, and it needed a new place to hang its hat.
Many folks opposed building a stadium for RSL. You know, the usual political mumbo jumbo. Taxes, fees—location, location, location.
In the middle of all this was Kreis.
At age 34, the youngest active MLS coach at the time, the former MLS all-time scoring leader had work to do.
This wasn't his team. This wasn't a team. It was a mess—a jumbled blob-of-an-excuse for those who opposed RSL and soccer in the state of Utah as a whole, to take the said higher road.
Soccer had run its course in Salt Lake.
Plastered over headlines of local newspapers were headlines that read: "RSL. Real St. Louis?"
Rumors of the team being relocated on account of no place to play grew louder and louder, and all this time Kreis was busy in his laboratory assembling his would-be monster.
Things had to be done.
First off, Kreis shipped the mercurial and oft-dramatic Jeff Cunningham out of town. The two never really saw eye-to-eye, and Kreis saw the first step to his far-away masterpiece on schedule.
Then went the team's former No. 2 overall draft pick Mehdi Ballouchy.
Then went Chris Klein.
Then the stabilizing Eddie Pope hung up the cleats.
Yeah, the team even had "phenom" Freddy Adu in uniform for one season. The youngster fled for success overseas that hasn't exactly been channeled quite yet.
In the meanwhile, Kreis was organizing the pieces on his board. He acquired a bulldog and face of the franchise in midfielder Kyle Beckerman.
There was a trip to Argentina to scout talent and there he found midfield mainstay Javier Morales and a left-footed attacking Fabian Espindola, who plays an amazing pest to opposing defenses.
He received allocations and future draft picks to stock up on. By trading a good friend in Klein, Kreis got his hands on arguably the fastest forward in the MLS.
Yura Movsisyan came in for virtually nothing.
In came Nick Rimando, a 5-foot-10, 27-year-old keeper who was cut loose by D.C. United after five season and some championships in hand.
In these moves, Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerway were building an ark of talent and most obviously, an ark of know-how and togetherness.
When Sunday rolls around, RSL will be lining up against the belle of the ball.
The most-recognized signing in the history of the league, David Beckham will be gunning for his first piece of MLS hardware. The best U.S. soccer player of all time, Landon Donovan will be hungry for his first in five seasons.
The Galaxy are where they are because of the talent they have and the impressive patch-job Bruce Arena did coming in.
He got his Eddie Lewis' and his Greg Berhalter's—he got his guys that he knew he could count on to help get his team to where they are now.
Kreis seemed like a craps guy.
He was rolling the dice, unsure of what would come, but steadfast in knowing that if he would be able to assemble the correct and just characters, that the ship would be righted.
It has been.
RSL has a chance to be the first team in the recent history of professional sports in America to have owned a championship despite finishing the season with a losing record.
They finished the 2009 campaign with a record of 11 wins, 12 losses and seven ties.
Yeah, the banality is there.
Squeaking into the playoffs is one thing, RSL did it on the last day of the regular season and needed help from about three different teams.
Destiny smiled, winked and gave them a right of passage—they didn't disappoint.
Besting the league's best team in a home-and-away round and then snapping the hearts of Chicago Fire fans, much thanks to Nick Rimando's Superman heroics.
Unlike a year before, when RSL stumbled into the 2008 playoffs and were about five shots off the post to advancing to the MLS Cup.
2008 wasn't it. I think someone wants to give Cinderella an encore dance here in 2009.
And go figure, a team that won all of two road games all season long go back-to-back heading to the Midwest and beating the two best teams in the Eastern Conference on their turf.
Is RSL a perfect team? Far from it. They still have a penchant for playing so conservatively that they often bury themselves due to lack of creativity and anyone familiar with the team knows that any lead from the 80th minute heeds no cause for complacency.
This team has a flaws. Its coach has flaws. This team has no superstar, no media mogul.
It's one shining star at the moment. Given its chance to enter the atmosphere and surprise so many, it's taken that opportunity and ran with it.
Contributions from Clint Mathis and Will Johnson, a couple guys that were given the quintessential thumbs down for so many years.
A back-line of comprised of another minor Kreis deal made major with the acquisition of Chris Wingert, to coincide with Nat Borchers coming back to the states from Norway and a freight-train named Jamison Olave.
The magical concoction that is this RSL squad can just continued to be rattled off and you'll find contributors left and right.
None will be more important and firm than Andy Williams. The Jamaican international has been with RSL since the 2005 inception, and has endured more than losing seasons along the Wasatch Front.
Marcia Williams, Andy's wife has been in a tough bout with cancer, and anytime you see No. 77 on the pitch, you hear a roar from the RSL faithful.
Side-stories are few and far between here in 2009 for this franchise, and standing in its way of the team's first MLS Cup Sunday is the team that has the star power.
Folks will pick against RSL as they have all season long, and it's helped the cause along the way.
Kreis is a life-long underachiever overachieving. He relishes the role. As does his team.
They've been written off since year one, day one.
It's about time that the "nobody's" got a shot at proving doubters wrong.
When asked about RSL, one hardline fan replied, "Our team is one big star."
Spot on assessment, and be assured Kreis and his guys won't take it for granted. Not after that revolutionary overhaul.
Now we'll sit back and see if this slew of no-namers can pull the ultimate coup d'état.
Mission impossible is now 90 minutes away from being flipped on its back.
Backs to the wall, Kreis and Co. wouldn't have it any other way.
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