Saturday, April 23, 2011
Real For Real
Soccer is a departure from TSD’s usual fare but, as we are on the verge of major history, today’s psyche post is about the rise of the Real Salt Lake soccer club. RSL went into Mexico last week, where an American team has never won a match, and tied Monterrey 2-2. If it can beat or tie the same team in Salt Lake, where it has not lost in 34 tries—the longest streak in the world—it will be the first North American team to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup final. That would mean this little soccer team from the MLS would be playing against players and teams most Americans have actually heard of like AC Milan, Manchester United and, of course, their parent club Real Madrid.
When I moved to Salt Lake near the end of 2006 the club was a joke. So much so that when they played a friendly against Real Madrid that summer, the big team kicked the ball around like they were playing keep away from a bunch of school kids. The next year, during a long losing streak, the coach was fired and replaced by 34 year old star player Jason Kreis. The controversial move was resoundingly panned by those “in the know” but began to pay dividends only a short time later. Grant Wahl’s outstanding article, The story of RSL: A once-wretched MLS club is making history, covers this transformation in detail.
The first thing Kreis did, in the middle of the season, was fly to South America to recruit a player.
"What is most important to me with these guys is meeting them," says Kreis. "All that stuff stands out when you watch a DVD, but you have no idea what kind of person he is. Seeing his DVD was maybe 65 percent, but talking to him and looking in his eyes fills that other 35 percent. It might have been the other way around."
As he began changing the roster he also instituted a new offensive-minded philosophy, challenging his team to play “the beautiful sport,” as it’s called in Brazil. North American teams generally played a more conservative, defense brand of soccer because they felt we lacked the talent to play a Latin-style footie. At worst, this fast-paced attacking game is more fun to watch and fans responded, filling Salt Lake’s new stadium to capacity nearly every match.
Even more important is the team concept he’s instilled. The Team is the Star is Kreis’ motto, which he goes to great lengths to adhere to. RSL lacks a single big name player but has the deepest roster in the MLS.
If anyone steps out of line, Kreis is quick to intervene. "I don't think every professional athlete could buy into our philosophy as a club," he says. "Professional sports lead to big egos. We don't have room or time for that."
Whether you’re a soccer fan or not Wahl’s piece is highly worth reading. It’s the kind of rags to riches story American ideals were founded on, even if it’s about an activity we’ve been very slow to embrace.
Soccer may not be considered a traditional outdoor sport but in many ways it’s the most iconic one. It’s played in every country in every weather condition. In fact weather and conditions can be part of a team’s strategy. Various countries have built venues at high altitude, in areas of oppressive heat, or bitter cold, or wet, to gain an advantage. And it works. Bolivia isn’t a world power in football but even mighty Brazil rarely wins at in their 10,000’ stadium, where they recently trounced ex-World Cup champ Argentina 6-1.
RSL players wilted in the Monterrey heat last week and were thoroughly out played in the second half. But thanks to a miraculous open field save against one of the world’s most dangerous strikers followed by Javier Morales’ beautiful 89th minute equalizer they come back home only needing a draw if they don’t give up two goals. In April it’s rained or snowed almost daily. The forecast call for a high of 49 with a 50% chance of rain. Wilting likely isn't going to be a problem.
javier morales scored what may become one of the biggest goals in mls history
Unfortunately I’ll be en route to Tucson for a race on Wed. But somewhere in the desert I’ll find a sports bar and ask for a channel to be changed. I’ll most likely be looked at sideways. What sort of American doesn’t want to see NBA playoffs, NASCAR highlights, or the latest NFL draft prospects? One with vision might be my answer. Because if Real makes the World Cup final perception of North American football is going to change.