SANDY — Real Salt Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy said that everyone on the team recognizes that this particular collection of players is a special group, one capable of leaving a lasting impression. The best way to do that is to win trophies.
That's why Real Salt Lake is taking the 2011 U.S. Open Cup very seriously.
"Any time you have a chance to play for any kind of championship, you have to seize it. It's important to us," said RSL defender Robbie Russell.
The tournament is open to all professional and amateur teams affiliated with U.S. Soccer, and it's been contested since 1914.
MLS teams often don't prioritize the Open Cup, including past RSL teams. By virtue of finishing with one of the best records in MLS last year though, Salt Lake received a bye into the Open Cup Round of 16. Unlike past years when several rounds of qualification were necessary, RSL is just four wins from the championship.
That quest begins tonight against lower-division foe Wilmington Hammerheads of USL Pro. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.
"It looks like a team that's going to fight hard for sure, not going to lay down and we have to be honest that they're going to come in here and this is probably their biggest game of the season," said Grabavoy.
The winner moves on to the quarterfinals against the winner of FC Dallas and Orlando City. Assuming both MLS teams win, FC Dallas would host Real Salt Lake at Pizza Hut Park on July 12.
There's much more than just hardware for the trophy case at stake in the Open Cup — the winner also qualifies for the 2012-2013 CONCACAF Champions League. RSL came agonizingly close to winning the 2010-2011 Champions League last month, but didn't qualify for the 2011-2012 version of the tournament.
The U.S. Open Cup represents the easiest path to get back into the tournament. U.S. Soccer is awarded four berths in the Champions League, and it distributes those slots to the MLS Cup winner, MLS Cup runner-up, MLS Supporters Shield and U.S. Open Cup winner.
"We put a ton of weight in CONCACAF last year as everybody knows, and this is somewhat an extension of CONCACAF for us. We view this as the shortest route to get back into the tournament," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
Seattle has won two straight U.S. Open Cup titles, a streak RSL hopes to put a halt to over the next two months.
Following last Saturday's 3-1 victory over Toronto FC, RSL coach Jason Kreis said he wasn't quite sure how he'd handle the lineup on short rest. The match will be RSL's fourth in 11 days, and Kreis admitted he wasn't sure he wanted to put some of his players through that grind.
"I haven't made up my mind whether there will be a lot of those same players on Tuesday or if different ones. I think we have a deep team, and have thought that for a long time, and maybe it's time for other players to step in and contribute," said Kreis.
With a few extra days off until RSL's next match on Monday, Kreis might gamble and start both games with his regulars.
"Anytime we play we want to win, obviously, whether there's changes to the lineup or not. Either way we feel like we have more than enough talent to do the job," said Grabavoy.