Almost midway into the season and surprisingly the team everyone least expected to make this early run is Real Salt Lake. If no one is asking questions how this modest Utah-based club that finished with only six wins last season is playing this well, it might be because they have flown pretty much under the radar until now. The team remains unbeaten at home and after a 2-0 win Saturday against Columbus, lead the Western Conference for the first time in team history.
Coming into this season most skeptics expected another bad year, but the one change made early last year is reaping early dividends in wins for their fans in 2008. It all started when, with only four games into the 2007 season, management made a massive change in coaching philosophy. The team did not install an already established name in MLS coaching ranks, instead, it chose a first-time coach and in former player Jason Kreis.
He was given the mantle to change the attitude of the team and has turned that around in a short period. "I think they see that I'm passionate about what I do," Kreis said of his current group of players who he admits most have played with or against him at some point. "They know to expect hard work every day in training and I expect the sessions to be extremely competitive as the game on the weekend."
When Kreis took over the team, there was a lack of focus and it was a club struggling for identity. In the offseason, he chose to reform the club to resemble his team-oriented style. He has also instilled a philosophy of winning, a mentality of starting fresh and it has echoed throughout the new group.
"When I first came out here, at the halfway point of last season, Jason told us we are 0-0-0 in the second half of the season," said team captain Kyle Beckerman, "Winning is a habit and so is losing."
The majority of players this season are also different from when Kreis took over. With a new group, and a positive mentality, it is quite easy to create a more cohesive and competitive unit as well as provide a different direction.
Entering the season, the biggest hole that needed to be filled was the loss of Eddie Pope, the long-time all-star who retired after last season. Even with Pope, RSL allowed 48 goals last season, second-most in the league.
"Coming into preseason, I knew the history of the team. When I played in Colorado, we used to come into Rice-Eccles Stadium and beat up on these guys," said Nat Borchers, who along with fellow new addition Jamison Olave, has helped solidify the back line.
"Nat Borchers is one of our stellar backs and I played with him in Colorado," said Beckerman, who also joined RSL last season. Olave is a special specimen in the back and a rock that is hard to get by. Most recently when the team played Houston Dynamo at home, he was tasked with curtailing Dynamo's Brian Ching. He might have picked up a yellow card, but he earned the respect of both the player and the game commentators.
Up front, the team has been able to combine the pace of Robbie Findley and the size of Kenny Deuchar. Though the pair have yet to produce the flow of goals expected, both Kreis and Beckerman agree Deuchar especially will only get better as the Scot settles into the league. "It's been an adjusting period for him, after playing in Scotland and a little bit in England. I think in America, the defense is a lot different than he is used to," said Beckerman.
Amidst all the changes and adjustments, physical and psychological, the biggest acquisition has undoubtedly been Argentine Javier Morales. The 28-year-old playmaker, formerly with Newell's Old Boys and Lanus, made an impact from the onset, registering an assist just 40 seconds into his debut against Kansas City. This season, he's tied for second in the league with seven. "We have a lot of guys who are dangerous. We have very special players on the team, but none like Javier Morales," said Borchers.
Their biggest weakness for RSL remains its poor travel form. With only three points from seven away games, so far, it's obvious the team needs to improve on the road.
"We've been right in there, some of the games we lost," said Beckerman. "I think it is something that we are constantly learning from and get better as a team."
Though everyone attributes most of the current success to Kreis, the coach quickly deflects the praise. "I would disagree; I think it is the players. A coach organizes the team, training sessions. It's the players that get the success and the players are responsible for the results."
The current group at RSL, devoid of any oversized egos, has adopted a blue-collar work ethic and approach. "There are no guys here who think they are here on vacation, we all want to work hard. We don't have any prima donnas either," said Borchers.
Kreis is not one to let the early success get into the heads of his team, fans or management. His goal is for the team to understand they can improve, display better soccer not only in the first half of the season, but also reaching the playoffs. "I think we've had a good first half of the season, but certainly not great and not 100 percent successful," said Kreis. "We can do more as a team that will make us better for the second half of the season."
Sulaiman Folarin is a columnist for ESPNsoccernet and contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.