In ever-evolving Major League Soccer, the league's history could be split almost evenly in half. There was the first stage, from 1996 to 2004, when MLS was a fledgling, young and small league. Then, from '05 through the present -- the Expansion Era might be an appropriate name -- the league has gotten some solid footing and grown a bit.
And while several clubs established themselves during the first part, Real Salt Lake has a chance to do the same in this burgeoning second stage. Of all the clubs who joined the league in '05 and afterward, RSL could be the first team to the finish line.
Real Salt Lake will play the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS Cup 2009 on Sunday at Seattle's Qwest Field (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and, with that, has distinguished itself from the rest of the recent expansion bunch. But RSL coaches and players aren't so quick to say they're the model for expansion success.
"Up until Seattle this year, that bar has been totally changed," said RSL midfielder Andy Williams. "Any other expansion team that comes in the next couple of years, they have Seattle to look up to: win the [U.S.] Open Cup their first year and make the playoffs. I know Chicago did it the first year they came into the league [in '98], but it's been awhile and it's pretty tough to do. Those teams who come in the next couple of years have a long go in front of them."
For nearly its entire existence, Real Salt Lake hadn't enjoyed anywhere near the amount of success Seattle Sounders FC did in its first season. Seattle won the Open Cup right off the bat and became the first expansion team during this recent phase to reach the postseason.
Still, RSL didn't exactly stumble into the playoffs. A Western Conference finalist last year, Salt Lake reached the MLS Cup final through the Eastern Conference this year and righted its wrongs from a year ago.
"It's some reward for all of the hard work we've put in now for 2½ years," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "It's something tangible to say that we've achieved something. You can always feel good about the direction of the club, the potential of the team you see every day, but without the results, it's hard to make an argument for yourself. All this does is legitimize what I've felt for a long time, that we're headed in the right direction."
But is that enough for Kreis to place his team in front of other recent expansion projects Chivas USA, Toronto FC, San Jose and Seattle?
That's a difficult claim to make because Chivas has made the playoffs for the last four years," Kreis said. "They made it two years before us. Our development certainly has been a little slower."
Chivas USA officials will boast their team has piled up the third-most points in the league since '06, with only Houston and D.C. United amassing more. Watching Chivas, which like RSL, entered the league in '05, have success and make the playoffs in '06 and '07 while his team struggled was difficult, Williams admitted.
"It's disheartening when the team that came in here with us achieved a lot more than we had," he said, "but we kind of turned it around the last two years and made it a lot more productive here and beat them last year."
And while the statistics Chivas USA has to offer are all well and good, Kreis' club has a legitimate chance at the hardware while Chivas has four consecutive first-round exits to its name.
"We would make the counter-claim that we have made it further in the playoffs than them both times," said Kreis, who led RSL to a 3-2 aggregate victory over Chivas USA in the opening round of last year's playoffs.
Imagining Chivas and RSL in the playoffs against one another in '05 was laughable at best. The teams combined for a 9-44-11 mark that year, as the two set a low bar for incoming MLS clubs. RSL stumbled its way to futility, setting a league-record scoreless streak in its first season while allowing an alarming 65 goals. Picturing his team as anything but a work-in-progress was difficult for Kreis who, as a player that season, suffered alongside Williams during that first year.
"When I was a player, I knew it was very much an expansion team, and that it was going to be a long process," Kreis said. "There were a lot of moments along the way where I was scratching my head, wondering if I should be and for how long I should continue playing in as much frustration as I was in."
Early in the '07 season, Kreis was offered the coaching position and immediately retired in order to take over, beginning a long and arduous task of rebuilding the club. For his part, Williams was somewhat optimistic when he joined the club in '05, only to have his hopes shattered badly.
"To tell you the truth, I thought the team the first year, we were pretty good on paper," Williams said. "We had a lot of experience, a lot of players who had played around the league, but we didn't have the mental aspect."
Now, with Kreis as coach and Williams one of the stabilizing locker-room presences, the club is mentally strong. While RSL could pull off a rare feat and win a championship despite having a losing regular-season record, the players are playoff-tough and battle-tested. For the long-suffering Williams, just reaching MLS Cup makes the first lean years worth the struggles.
"I've been here from Day One and been through all the stress and struggles," he said, "and to see this team, even compared to last year's achievements, this year, it's an honor. To be here this long, to reach where we are right now, I'm happy and I'm sure the fans here are super-happy to have a team that's been so successful the last couple of years."