Real Salt Lake finally in MLS playoffs
SANDY, Utah -- Real Salt Lake's short history has included more setbacks than progress.
But after three years of futility and a threatened move, Salt Lake is in Major League Soccer's playoffs for the first time.
"It's been a very, very long road with a lot of work and a lot of disappointment," said coach Jason Kreis, who has been part of the club since it joined the league.
Real hosts Chivas USA on Saturday in the first game of a Western Conference semifinals, a playoff game Kreis has been looking forward to for a long time.
Kreis was the first player to join the team and played the first two seasons before retiring early in 2007 and taking over as coach.
"When we didn't make it those first couple years, I felt very responsible for that," said Kreis, who scored the first goal in team history. "To finally have that success that I've longed for for so long is fantastic
Real went 10-10-10 this season, closing with a five-game unbeaten streak and clinching the playoff berth with a dramatic finish on a goal in the 90th minute to tie Colorado 1-1 on Saturday. Real entered the game knowing that a win or even a tie would get a postseason berth, but was in serious jeopardy of blowing the chance until Yura Movsiyan scored on a rebound in the last minute of regulation time.
"We've been in the playoffs now the past three or four weeks. That's the way I feel," Kreis said. "I don't think that this game in particular has any more pressure than the last three that we've played. Our guys I think are almost comfortable in that setting."
The MLS playoffs open Thursday night when New England hosts Chicago. The other Eastern Conference semifinal opens Saturday when Kansas City visits Columbus, which had the best record in the league at 17-7-6. The Western Conference features the Real-Chivas series and two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston hosting New York, which is in the playing in the West as a wild card.
If Real hadn't come up with the last-minute goal last weekend, Salt Lake's fourth season would have ended like the previous three.
Andy Williams, one of only a handful of players left from the original expansion club in 2005, took the shot that led to Movsiyan's goal at Colorado. Williams is in the playoffs for the first time since helping Chicago to the MLS Cup in 2003 and has had his most difficult season, learning in July that his wife has leukemia.
"Trust me, I want to score that one so bad, but I'm glad it went in," Williams said. "Words can't explain it, seriously. Four years of watching the playoffs at the end of every season, it's tough, especially when you feel like you should be there."
Salt Lake and Chivas both entered the league as expansion clubs in 2005, but have had little in common since then. Chivas won the Western Conference regular-season title last season and made the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Real has never had a winning record and just two years ago appeared to be on the verge leaving the state when owner Dave Checketts grew tired of Salt Lake County repeatedly shooting down proposals for $35 million in public money to partially fund a new stadium Checketts said was necessary to keep Real Salt Lake from becoming Real somewhere else.
Gov. Jon Huntsman pushed state lawmakers to come up with a last-second resolution in February 2007 and construction began a couple months later.
Rio Tinto Stadium was completed in time for Real to play the final two games of the regular season in the new venue, which will host the MLS All-Star game next year. After playing almost four full seasons on the dreaded artificial turf at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium, Real finally has a true home.
RSL can claim an unbeaten record at Rio Tinto, although 1-1-0 can't exactly be imposing to Chivas, entering Saturday's game, which is the first of a home-and-home series that will be decided on aggregate scoring. The series winner will need to win at least one game and outscore the other in total goes for the short series.
Game 2 is next Saturday in Carson, Calif., where Real won 1-0 over Chivas in June.
"I think everybody should be pretty excited to feel like we can win this series," midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "It's not like we're playing Manchester United or anything. We're playing a team that we've beaten in their place."