SANDY — A hundred years of U.S. Open Cup competition is a lot of weight. Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis is feeling every year of it.
Three cup matches, three 1-0 losses, this one to D.C. United on Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The worst part for RSL fans?
It might not be the team’s biggest loss this season.
Kreis could be gone, too, thanks to a Big Apple kind of offer.
There have been some big letdowns in Utah over the years, but few more surprising than Tuesday night’s. There was no way to explain it away. Not officiating, fatigue or even the absence Luis Gill, who had an appendectomy this week.
Asked if losing 1-0 final games in 2008 and 2011, and again this year, was hard to fathom, Kreis said, “Yeah. It’s something I really can’t get a finger on — how we can get so close, have so much momentum, and can’t seem to put it together, can’t seem to get over the hurdle.”
Real also lost to the New York Red Bulls in the 2008 Western Conference final, and to CF Monterrey in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League title game. Now it can think about losing something else: It’s coach.
That isn’t to say Kreis is about to be fired. On the contrary, he could be on his way to New York. Maybe he’s done all he can in Utah. He has already talked with New York City FC's owners. Other offers are likely to come.
Kries is popular in Salt Lake, in a Nick Saban kind of way. He can be terse and impatient. Rhetorical questions are sometimes met with a frosty response, though none of that happened on Tuesday. Kreis was surprisingly pleasant, considering the outcome. He graciously praised United for winning a cup in the midst of a miserable season.
In any case, it’s impossible to ignore Kreis’ results. RSL is going for its seventh consecutive playoff appearance, having become the first MLS team to win 15 games in four consecutive seasons.
His ability to take mid-level talent and salaries, and turn them into upper-level performance is impressive. RSL is now scrambling to try to keep him in Utah.
It wasn’t as though Real didn’t try on Tuesday. It started out aggressively but couldn’t connect. Lewis Neal’s 45th minute goal gave United all the scoring for the game.
RSL fought into second-half stoppage until Devon Sandoval’s bicycle kick was collected, and Alvaro Saborio’s header was stopped. Kreis sat on the bench long after the match had ended, as the post-game wave of dismay rolled over him. He waited until the ceremony, one leg crossed, arm on the bench, a man with nowhere to go, gazing blankly into the distance.
Or was he waiting for a flight to New York?
In 2009 RSL won the MLS Cup, but otherwise its trophy case is as barren as the Salt Flats. Its first, best chance for an automatic berth in the CCL this year went down the drain, compliments of a team that has won just three games in MLS play.
Kreis said all year that winning the Open Cup was a major goal. Real could still play in the CCF League by winning the MLS Cup. So is the loss a big deal?
“Playing cup competition in any country is a big thing,” said U.S. Mens’ National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was in town for the match.
If ever there were a sign this was the year for RSL to win the Open Cup, this was it. The Royals defeated four teams to get to Tuesday, three of them from lower leagues than MLS. Meanwhile Real played all the games at home, thanks to a series of coin flips at the league office.
That’s right. RSL won five consecutive coin flips to host. Viva Las Vegas.
But just when RSL seemed to have all the luck on its side, it crapped out.
It was a perfect night to wrap things up, the weather cool and clear. Then things darkened, outside and on the Real Salt Lake sideline. United took the lead just before the half. Real’s shots hit the posts, others went right into the keeper’s arms. It outshot D.C. United 10-2 and led 6-1 in shots on goal.
“There’s only one stat that matters,” Kreis said.
In a strange way, the crushing loss made the prospect of Kreis rolling the dice in another place seem all the more possible.
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