Real Salt Lake has not claimed a trophy since winning the MLS Cup in 2009. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Moral victories aren’t meaningless, but a steady diet of them won’t satisfy.
“I think we need this one. For that validation,” Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers said as he looked ahead to Tuesday night’s U.S. Open Cup final at Rio Tinto Stadium. “I think when you look at our team and you look at how much talent we have -- how much we’ve accomplished in a league where you have a salary cap -- to prove to ourselves that we're that good, we do need some more silverware in the trophy case.”
Representing the smallest market in MLS, modest Real Salt Lake has been punching above its weight for years. But since winning a surprising league title in 2009, acclamation has had to suffice.
At 15-10-6, RSL this year became the first club in the post-shootout era (since 2000) to reach the 15-win and 50-point plateaus in four consecutive seasons. It came within a single goal of winning the CONCACAF Champions League back in 2011 and is renowned for a commitment to possession soccer and its uncanny ability to identify and cultivate talent.
But the trophy case at Rio Tinto Stadium remains relatively bare, and with the end of an era in sight – coach Jason Kreis is in demand, GM Garth Lagerwey is out of contract after 2014 and key players like Borchers, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales are in their 30s – the hunger is increasing.
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“If you want to secure a legacy, you have to win multiple championships,” Lagerwey told SI.com. “Which is not at all to diminish how difficult it is to win any championship. But within our group there’s a desire to make our mark, to have a legacy, to say we were a good group for a long time.”
RSL’s pursuit of a lasting legacy is the principle storyline of the 100th U.S. Open Cup final, but it’s not the only one.
Its opponent, D.C. United, is crafting a classic cup story of its own. Mired in one of the most miserable seasons in MLS history (D.C. is 3-21-6 and would have its bags packed for the second division in almost every other league in the world), United has somehow defeated three Eastern Conference rivals on the way to an unlikely place in Tuesday’s showpiece.
“You see it all over the world,” D.C. coach Ben Olsen said Sunday at RFK Stadium. “It’s something different. And when your belief is down in maybe one area, it’s a fresh opportunity and a different mindset and it’s kind of spiraled in a positive while the season results and the MLS games, kind of, the belief spiraled in a negative. It’s been great, to have this at the end here, has helped me in what would have been a very tough situation to motivate these guys.”
D.C. will be motivated to rescue a lost season and Olsen, perhaps, will be making his case to continue his youth movement in the capital. A third Open Cup would shine brightly in the club’s already burgeoning trophy case long after the pain of a lost MLS season fades away.
It's been a season with little to cheer for in D.C. as the club approaches an MLS futility record. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
United is a heavy underdog and has little to lose. RSL, however, is under considerable pressure. It has played for a trophy on home turf twice previously and lost 1-0 on both occasions – the 2008 Eastern Conference final and the second leg of the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League finals. RSL also suffered MLS playoff elimination at Rio Tinto in 2010 and 2012. A knack for coming up short in big moments is not something for which this team will want to be remembered.
“We’ve been a consistent regular season team. But if you want to punctuate it, if you want to have a legacy, you’ve got to win some big games,” Lagerwey said.
“In the big games, the great teams, they find a way to win,” Borchers added.
This season’s RSL squad is the deepest of Kreis and Lagerwey’s seven-year tenure. The pair was forced to trade away three key players -- defender Jámison Olave, midfielder Will Johnson and forward Fabián Espíndola – over the winter because of a salary cap crunch but didn’t skip a beat thanks to a conveyor belt of talent that has learned to thrive within Kreis’ system.
“This season has definitely been more satisfying from that angle,” said Borchers, who’s played alongside relatively untested central defenders Chris Schuler and Carlos Salcedo this year.
“In the locker room we’re a lot tighter. Everybody likes to hang out together off the field,” Borchers added. “This team, everyone, has bought into the system more so than in previous years, and I think the expectations were lower than in previous years as well. The fact that we’ve had as many wins as we’ve had has been very satisfying.”
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But not completely satisfying.
“If you want to consistently compete for championships, it’s also true that at some point you have to win one,” Lagerway said. “You have to take advantage of what’s been a good draw for us in the Open Cup. The tournament has shaped up favorably for us. When you get those opportunities, understanding that they don’t come every year, it’s very important to take advantage of it.”
It’s a fitting final, embodying what Cup competitions are supposed to be about.
For one club, Tuesday’s game represents a reprieve.
“I think getting to the final in a season like this says a lot about these guys,” Olsen said. “The fact that the wheels didn’t come of this team or this club … for these guys to still pull together and find themselves in a final is a credit to them.”
For the other club, the final represents a bid for history.
“I certainly don’t think we’re overlooked and underappreciated. I’m very grateful for all the nice things that fans and all the national media say about us,” Lagerway said. “But our group wants this very badly. The core group of guys, the fact is they’re closer to the end than the beginning. We’ve talked about the young guys coming up. The fact is, our group is as good as it is because of that veteran core. It gives young guys something to look up to, something to aspire to. One of the lessons that needs to be taught is how to win a championship. That’s a key part. We’ve been so close so many times. I think to get true validation, you need to win a second championship.”
STRAUS: RSL coach Jason Kreis talks on-field strategy and building long-term success