I have to say, right now I am most envious of Salt Lake City's fans.
Fans, as in those devoted to soccer and those not yet converted, because since Day 1, Real Salt Lake has resembled a major sports franchise. Sad to say, several MLS teams are not regarded as such, and those that either moved or gave it up altogether -- Tampa Bay, Miami, San Jose 1.0 -- never came close to big-league status no matter how many fans they drew nor games they won.
Four years after investing in MLS, operator-investor Dave Checketts has moved his team into a new stadium, a splendid structure with attractive design, pleasant amenities and smooth playing surface. (Again, how many MLS teams can lay claim all of those elements?)
Since it opened last month, Rio Tinto Stadium has showcased four matches that vividly and excruciatingly portrayed soccer in its essence. Heavy doses of euphoria, angst, spirit, triumph and self-delusion felt by fans around the world for more than a century is distilled into the past five weeks.
The New York Red Bulls, cast as villains of this saga for their courage and resilience, spoiled the Oct. 9 opener by refusing to serve as the Washington Generals did for decades of being whomped by the Harlem Globetrotters. Team, city and league officials attended, and every seat (20,008) was filled, but New York took a 1-0 lead with a goal by Dave van den Bergh -- more on him later, the fiend -- and eventually held on for a 1-1 tie.
Amid all the excitement and glowing reviews for Rio Tinto, coach Jason Kreis and his players focused on attaining what had narrowly escaped him as an RSL player in 2006: a playoff spot.
"I remember that year in particular because late in the season we came back from an away game," said Kreis, who played nine seasons in Dallas before heading to Utah. "We had finally won an away game and we were in a tremendous string of matches there, and there were all these people at the airport, I just couldn't believe it. I'd never experienced anything like that in Dallas before. They were there to cheer us on, to show us they believed in us."
Nine days after tying New York, RSL did what a home team in a playoff crunch must do: It won big, thumping FC Dallas 3-1 in front of 17,628 fans to set up an all-important showdown on the final weekend of the season in Colorado. RSL needed at least a tie and just barely got it, equalizing in the final minute when Yura Movsisyan smacked home a rebound.
Back home at Rio Tinto for the Western Conference semifinal first leg, RSL and Movsisyan did it again, scoring extremely late to win, 1-0. With only a few days to sell tickets, RSL drew a good crowd of 14,179.
A week later, RSL tied Chivas USA 2-2 at Home Depot Center. As had been the case in Colorado, a contingent of fans made the trek. "I think it really spurred the guys on in those two penultimate, pressure-packed situations to have fans who were willing to go all that way to those stadiums to make it happen," said Kreis.
President Bill Manning vowed to pack Rio Tinto yet again for the final home game of the season, the conference final against New York. Aside from the NBA's Utah Jazz and University of Utah football (undefeated and playing in San Diego last weekend), the sports competition is slim, yet even in Salt Lake City -- where 40,586 fans attended a U.S. vs. Costa Rica World Cup qualifier three years ago -- packing the place ain't easy.
"We're a pretty big fish in this town as opposed to some of the other markets, where you feel fifth on the totem pole," says Manning. "After the Jazz, we are a clear No. 2, no doubt about it. We get good press coverage and we're legitimate in this town. The stadium has brought us a new level of credibility, because I think there was some skepticism that it would be like a glorified high school stadium, and you walk into the stadium and you are just blown away. It's first-class."
On Saturday, night fell on a first-class setting: another full house, the nearby Wasatch Mountains jutting into the sky, a small pocket of Red Bull fans defiantly cheering and waving scarves in a raucous atmosphere, heated and spirited play, a few smoke bombs hurled onto the field (which management does have to resolve).
Again, Dave van den Villain scored, but unlike the opener, this time there would be no equalizer. Tension and drama and passion skewed off the charts: near misses, saves, deflections, hit posts and every other force conspired to deny RSL, its fans and its city a precious tying goal.
No team punishes a superior team more often and more cruelly than soccer, yet this, too, is inherent to the fan. Red Bull aficionados know bitterness. They often attend home games in a yawning, empty chasm, where every shout and thump of the ball can be heard. Their team still doesn't have its own stadium, but salvation is on the way, and having endured a dozen futile seasons and paid exorbitant dues of disappointment, they can celebrate and salute a spot in the final.
RSL fans must wait to savor that glory. Yet in the last few games of their team's four-year existence, in their own backyard, during a dizzying ride, they tasted just about everything else.