SEATTLE – Capturing the essence of triumph isn't the easiest thing in the world to do, especially considering the number of factors that went into Real Salt Lake's MLS Cup triumph over Los Angeles on penalty kicks on Sunday night.
Finding the right angle gets a whole lot easier when one member of the newly-crowned champions starts the conversation.
"It's a Cinderella story," Real Salt Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "It really is."
In many senses, that's exactly on the nose. No one expected plucky RSL, one for all and all for considerably less than either David Beckham or Landon Donovan, to stand much of a chance against the Galaxy. No one expected RSL to even make the playoffs after a dismal run of form left them needing a series of results on the final day just to claw into the postseason. No one expected RSL to oust heavily-favored Columbus or heavily-favored Chicago in the first two rounds of the playoffs either.
At the same time, this conquest required far more than lightning in a bottle. Instead, this apparent overnight success tale resulted from a hard slog of gradual team building and spirit forging started when Jason Kreis took the helm in May 2007 and buttressed when Garth Lagerwey joined as general manager four months later.
Bit by bit, Kreis and Lagerwey disassembled the persistent errors of the previous regime and constructed a better club with a more certain approach to the game and a more cohesive team spirit. Smart moves – Kreis' move to send Mehdi Ballouchy to Colorado for club captain Kyle Beckerman prior to Lagerwey's arrival looks like the trade of the century these days – and honest work forged a team built on the peculiar combination of unrelenting effort and slick passing.
Then again, RSL's unique blend of determination, effort and skill embodies the image of Kreis, the player. No wonder then that the strange brew simmered and boiled under Kreis, the manager.
"He's the most competitive guy I've ever met and that's really saying something," Real Salt Lake investor/operator Dave Checketts said as he surveyed a jubilant locker room. "He drives himself. He drives this club."
The direction, at least for most of this season, veered a bit off course. Inconsistency and immodesty presented two difficult problems RSL couldn't quite solve. Success arrived too quickly with a Western Conference final berth last season and RSL simply didn't know how to handle the burden of expectation. Kreis tried just about everything to get his side on form – even the distinctive diamond midfield made way for a 4-3-3 to add a second defensive midfielder at one point – and couldn't find the right mix. There were even whispers at points that RSL might clean house on and off the field at the end of the season if the fade continued.
A situation that would cripple most teams slid RSL right back on track. Two wins out of three were enough to make the playoffs. Two subsequent wins over the fading Crew and a gritty, Nick Rimando-backed penalty kick shootout win in Chicago booked this date with the glitzy Galaxy. Adversity, it seems, draws the best out of the Claret-and-Cobalt.
Little wonder then that the first title triumph in team history required a bit of perseverance. Talismanic playmaker Javier Morales limped off with barely a quarter of an hour gone after Beckham's shoddy challenge at midfield left him with a strained left knee. Fellow midfielder Will Johnson joined him on the bench at the break after fighting through illness to play the first half. If those two injuries weren't enough, RSL entered the second half down a goal after Mike Magee tapped home Donovan's inch-perfect cross four minutes before the interval.
With their backs against the wall, RSL turned to two role players and its collective spirit to climb out of the hole.
Clint Mathis came on for Morales halfway through the first half and looked woefully out of sorts and off the pace prior to the break. Instead of putting his head down after a poor start, Mathis dug deep after halftime and did most of the things Morales normally does for the remainder of the match. By dropping deep occasionally to link the play and keeping the ball moving consistently, Mathis fulfilled his attacking requirements while contributing defensively. Mathis didn't quite deliver mohawks, slalom runs and I Love New York t-shirts, but Mathis version 2.0 provided exactly what RSL wanted and needed in a tough spot.
"I know people have counted me out many times in my career, but I went out there and I thought I had a good game," Mathis said. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. I have a gold medal around my neck."
Grabavoy plugged in for Johnson about as well as any one can fill in for a guy who covers acres and acres of space for 90 minutes. Like Mathis, Grabavoy fulfilled every requirement by tracking back and surging forward when it was required. For a guy who freely admitted after the game that defense wasn't a priority before he arrived in Utah, Grabavoy sure looked like a useful player on both sides of the ball.
"That's something I really figured out last year," Grabavoy said. "I wasn't asked to do that much in the early parts of my career. I've been asked to be a two-way player now and I know it's something I need to do and need to do well if I want to keep being a good player in this league. It's something I have really worked at this year and I really take pride in."
What RSL has done better than most teams in this league is find players like Grabavoy, Mathis and Andy Williams who are willing to evolve and willing to take pride in grasping a new role. The best part about that willingness to change is that the player's previous qualities still remain in tact. Hence why RSL can both muck and entertain.
In a pure footballing sense, no team in MLS can match RSL's artistry when it finds its cadence in possession. With Los Angeles failing to maintain its compressed shape in the second half and writhing around trying to compensate for poor nights from the hobbled Beckham and the out-of-sorts Donovan, RSL's rhythm returned. The Claret-and-Cobalt knocked the ball around without a care in the world, threatened sporadically after Robbie Findley's opportunistic equalizer and ensured it would enter the lottery of penalties as the side most likely to be deemed hard luck losers if things went sour.
"My honest opinion is that we deserved to win that game, so I'm glad that we did," Kreis said.
With Rimando in between the pipes, there wasn't much doubt Cinderella would go to the ball. Rimando stopped two penalty kicks, Donovan ended his miserable night by skying his attempt over the bar and Robbie Russell sent Utah into rapture by tucking home the game-winner.
On this night and to cap this long and grueling season, few could have begrudged Real Salt Lake its place in the sun. The better team won in the end, a fact Beckham pointed out when he visited the opposing locker room and paid tribute to RSL after the match. The external validation by Beckham and others may be as belated as it is proper, but for this RSL team, it's all about the internal expectation and the collective belief.
"They've put in so much work of the two years that most of them have been together now," Kreis said. "It started off with a dream and an idea about what this team could look like and would look like over time."
It ended, at least for this one special moment in Seattle, with a championship.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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