Sport is a bitch sometimes. It’s a cruel mistress. It’s abusive and demoralizing and disenfranchising.
And yet fans continue coming back to it, to their team, to their players, to their city. Regardless of how many times they’ve been frustrated or mistreated or flatly denied and disappointed, fans come back. Only in the most dire and devastating of circumstances do fans ever leave (disbandment, lack of connection to a front office or organization, etc).
This begs the simple question: Why?
Last night, Real Salt Lake made its second major appearance in a championship game on home soil. Last night, Real Salt Lake failed to win a major championship appearance on home soil… for a second time.
The US Open Cup Final was a one-off game featuring RSL as one of the top teams in MLS pitted against the absolute worst — DC United. Looking to pull the upset a la Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup last season, DC proved to be a thorn, sticking it to the home team just before half time. The moment of shortcoming for RSL was disastrous as Lewis Neal (an RSL trialist in 2012) placed a wayward and incidental ball to the far post from the left of the goal.
It was DC’s third USOC trophy, and 13th piece of hardware in club history.
On April 27th, 2011, RSL hosted the second-leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Final at Rio Tinto Stadium. They played Mexican powerhouse Monterrey (who went on to win three consecutive CCL titles). RSL managed a 2-2 draw in Monterrey in the first leg, a tough feat for anyone, as Mexico always is. The two road goals meant even a 1-1 tie would see them hoist a trophy in front of home fans. Unfortunately, in first half stoppage time, this happened. Humberto Suazo, a name that has become infamous in Utah, struck the death blow to RSL and their aspirations of regional triumph.
Two other instances like this exist in a lesser extent.
In 2008, RSL met New York Red Bulls in Utah for the MLS Cup playoffs to decide the champion of the Western Conference. In the first half, NY midfielder John Wolyniec advanced down the left flank, dragging out one of the center backs, then slotted a ball center to a streaking Dave van den Bergh who ably slotted it to the far post.
Again last season, RSL met Seattle in the Western semi-finals. After a 0-0 draw in Seattle, the second leg in Sandy was considered well within Salt Lake’s favor. With 10 minutes remaining, however, a centering cross from Brad Evans to Mauro Rosales set up a chip pass to Mario Martinez on the left side of the box. Martinez unleashed a quick volley that streaked to the far post past Nicky Rimando. The game ended 1-0, and the Sounders advanced to the Western finals.
The examples might be painful for RSL fans to watch, and probably monotonous for others. But what’s the common thread in all of them?
The obvious: All games were played in Rio Tinto Stadium, a place known as “The Fortress” in the past. All were pivotal matches that could’ve seen the team lift hardware, or advance closer to doing so. All were 1-0 results with RSL having their fair chances to score or take the lead only to see them blocked/saved/deflected/missed/hit the post.
The less obvious: All opposition goals transpired on RSL’s right flank, with the slight exception of Seattle’s being created from the left then crossed right. All goals conceded were in a moment of shifting shape and/or scramble situations where RSL were not in systemic positions vital to how they like to play the game.
The important: All featured a severe lack of personalities capable of delivering in clutch moments in crucial games.
I say “personalities” because I wish not to leave any position or status absent. Players, coaching/technical staff, management, ownership… all are included because all are part of the team. And the team is the star.
“Clutch” is defined as grasping, gripping, hugging, seizing.
A clutch in a manual transmission vehicle is the device that grips the flywheel which is attached internally to the myriad gears inside the transmission housing. As these gears are spinning at high velocities and at thousands of revolutions a minute, the clutch remains solid and true, engaging at the most opportune time in the thick of the melee of metal and composites to take hold of the disc of the flywheel and force it to the next level.
There is no better analogy of a “clutch” personality.
And by this metaphor the truth becomes all-too-clear — Real Salt Lake lack the quintessential clutch player.
Some may take this to mean that I wish for the club and new sole-owner Dell Loy Hanson to invest in a high-level designated player. I don’t. Frankly, I think it’d be a travesty to welcome to the club the likes of a Robbie Keane or Clint Dempsey. RSL have a history of promoting players to DP status rather than bringing in a known commodity at that level. Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales (RSL’s only two DP’s ever) were contracted this way. And even then neither salary approaches $500K let alone a million.
What I’m asking for is for someone to step up. Whether it be a lesser-known player, one of their DP’s, their current captain Kyle Beckerman, or one of the coaching/technical staff… someone needs to grip the damned wheel and power the entirety of the team through the maelstrom of battle and into glory.
What I’m about to say will be said at the risk of blaspheming the entire franchise and pissing off a lot of fans of the club. But, like Jason Kreis has said, it’s best to talk about things out in the open and not keep them hidden, so here it goes…
If what the club needs to thrive and become victorious when the occasion calls for it is the moving-on of Jason Kreis, then so be it. Possibly, maybe, conceivably… a Kreis-less RSL might be a better RSL. And a personality put in charge of on-field duties with ability to be clutch and to select clutch players could turn the future into better results than the above examples of history.
Please do not take this the wrong way. I don’t want Jason to leave. I have bought into everything he has built this club to be. I even have a t-shirt with his face on it! I am a fan of the coach, not just the team. But we need to keep reality in our perspectives. Jason leaving is a real possibility. Also a possibility is replacing him with someone that will take the club higher and farther. This is based on hope, not criticism. And I will accept a Kreis-less RSL just as much as I will accept a Kreis-filled RSL. I long for the latter, and wish it to be so. No one would be as thrilled as I would be for Kreis to remain.
So, back to handling those emotions in defeat…
As a native of central Pennsylvania, I see a lot of agony in sports. The Eagles, the Flyers, the Sixers, the Pirates… pretty much anything but the Steelers/Ravens. Despite not being a fan of any of these teams, I see the emotion every season, every game by those around me. Like I said, sport is a bitch.
What I’ve noticed, though, is that regardless of how much people complain or rant or vent or threaten to revoke their season tickets or support or burn all their paraphernalia, 99.9% of them come back. The wounds are soon healed. The scabs flake off. Memories become faded, although still there. Scars still show, but no longer ache. Unity is restored for the following season or the next prize, and hope reasserts itself in the hearts and minds of those that follow. That’s what the off-season is for.
So too with RSL. Two additional trophies remain on the line, something most other sports can’t say. The Supporters’ Shield could be won if Salt Lake do what they need to do in the final four games, and the dice fall their way against their current competition. As few as two games dropped by New York or Seattle could see them drop out of contention.
And the epitome of success in the league, MLS Cup, is a very real and attainable piece of silverware. We all know the crap shoot of the playoffs. RSL could very well pull it out through another hot streak while other teams falter. So the chances of victory (and that much-vaunted Champions League berth) are alive and well.
Those fans expressing their frustrations of deja vu in competition with the team, and threatening to never come back or pay money for the sport again? They’ll get over it, because that’s what sports fans do. Others of us may want to criticize these types of supporters and heap insults on them for not sticking it through in the bad times. Rightly so. But allow me to discourage you from doing so. This attitude can be even more damaging than the former because it is divisive and fractioning. Allow those in angst to vent, and welcome them back to the fold once they’re done.
To those venting I repeat what I said on the Twitter machine earlier today: From agony and pain come clarity and progress. Embrace it. Then demand change.
And to this I’ll add: Demand the change either of yourself or of those expected to be held accountable. After all, supporters are based on loyalty; customers are based on quality.
Whether the 2013 season ends badly or superbly; whether 2014 starts off with or without Jason Kreis; whether we see DP’s, captains, or faces of the club depart or arrive; whether or not we slip back into the basements of the league and sport; whether or not we find that clutch personality; at the end of the day, this is sport. It is entertainment.
Our emotions rise and fall as quickly as and in unison with the team we follow. Embrace all of these things and experience them as they come and go. In “normal” times, we’ll regain our composure and welcome another season, match, tournament, player, or personnel into our lives and we’ll keep on being entertained by the harsh mistress that is sport.