Ahead of the 2013 U.S. Open Cup final, the pressure is on Real Salt Lake to turn stability into success.In 2009, third-year coach Jason Kreis led Real Salt Lake to the Major League Soccer playoffs. The team barely squeaked in, taking the final spot on a tiebreaker after finishing level on points with two other teams. That side went on to stun the league, making a run to the MLS Cup final and defeating Landon Donovan and David Beckham's LA Galaxy on penalties to claim the title.
It remains the club's only trophy.
In the intervening years, Real Salt Lake has become a consistent, successful fixture in a league characterized by volatility and boom-bust playoff cycles. The Claret and Cobalt recently became the first team in MLS history to win 15 games four years in a row (a mark LA could yet match).
The Royals have made the playoffs for six straight seasons, a streak of durability unmatched in the league. They are the only American side to reach the final of the newly-revamped CONCACAF Champions League, and the only one to get that far in continental play since LA defeated Olimpia in 2000.
None of which has yielded a second piece of silverware.
Kreis has implemented a possession-oriented, tactically fluid system that is the envy of MLS. He has woven together a squad of MLS veterans like Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman, somewhat pricey but valuable foreign imports like Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales, and freshly-blooded young talents like Luis Gil and Carlos Salcedo, imbuing them with his mantra of "the team is the star."
Perhaps most remarkably, he's done it all on a budget that is positively mid-table. RSL is on the hook for less than $4 million in guaranteed compensation this year, just the ninth-highest in the 19-team league. Three players - Seattle's Clint Dempsey, New York's Thierry Henry, and LA's Robbie Keane - will make more than the entire RSL squad combined. It's no surprise Kreis has been mooted as a possible candidate for the high-profile New York City FC job, and it seems like only a matter of time until he's put in charge of the U.S. national team.
Off the field, RSL has gotten seemingly everything right, from its stadium to its team anthem to its social media presence to its TV broadcast team. It has established one of the most impressive youth systems in the country, with the league's only full-time residency academy in Arizona. It has made Utah, of all places, into a stronghold of American soccer support.
But with all due respect to the Rocky Mountain Cup, RSL's trophy cabinet remains a lonely place for that 2009 triumph.
On Tuesday, Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium will see its boys run out against D.C. United in the final of the 100th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Despite D.C.'s glittering history, the capital side has endured a torrid year and is in last place in MLS. Real Salt Lake rested many of its starters over the weekend in anticipation of the final, and defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0. United did the same, and was thumped 4-1 by Toronto FC.
Kreis has been blunt about his focus on the trophy, telling reporters after the Vancouver win, "We said for the next six weeks that the most important match for us is the Open Cup final, and yes we want to compete for the Supporters' Shield, but for me the chance to win something in a one-off game has to take precedence."
"It’s a big game for all of us," midfielder Sebastien Velasquez told the media. "We have an opportunity to make history."
It is a perfect opportunity for RSL to win a second major trophy. And frankly, it's about time.