SANDY — Real Salt Lake knows as well as anyone that the MLS playoffs are unpredictable.
In 2008 and 2009, RSL qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, yet advanced to the conference final both years and won the MLS Cup in 2009.
This year, RSL qualified for the playoffs weeks before the end of the regular season but couldn't get out of the first round.
"Sometimes the playoffs are a crapshoot and it wasn't our time this year," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman.
Real Salt Lake's accomplishments during the regular season, however, were really quite staggering.
RSL finished with the second-best record in MLS and was in the hunt for the Supporter's Shield until the final weekend of the season. It set or tied six single-season league records, including fewest goals allowed, and also set or tied 14 team records. It also set a new league record with a 25-game regular-season home unbeaten streak — which is still in progress.
Jamison Olave was named the MLS Defender of the Year and Alvaro Saborio was named the MLS Newcomer of the Year.
Real Salt Lake won its group in the CONCACAF Champions League, advancing to the quarterfinals next February, when it will take on fellow MLS squad Columbus.
"When you look at the season, it was an excellent season. We had a lot of fun; we didn't lose many games," said Beckerman.
Nonetheless, he and all of his teammates are heading into the offseason with a bitter taste in their mouths.
"Yeah, we did do some fantastic things this year, but (winning another) MLS Cup was on the front burner for a lot of us," said defender Nat Borchers.
"We all know what we've accomplished, and we're all proud of that, but right now what sticks out in our mind is our last loss, and that's Dallas," said Nick Rimando.
For some, the sting of bowing out in the first round will last a long time. Robbie Russell said he still talks about Real Salt Lake's loss to New York in the conference final in 2008.
The big question this offseason is which players will be back as RSL continues its quest to win the 2010-2011 Champions League, while also trying to dethrone Los Angeles as the Supporter's Shield winner.
Robbie Findley's contract with MLS expires, and he's expressed interest in exploring his options overseas. Saborio's loan from his Swiss club is also up, and renegotiating a new loan or buyout won't be cheap. Re-signing the duo or finding replacements will be the No. 1 objective this offseason.
Real Salt Lake will likely also lose one or two players in the Portland and Vancouver expansion draft next week.
"There's going to have to be some guys that are left unprotected, and that's just the way it goes. And I would think there's a good chance at least one, maybe two of our guys would get picked up because we have some good players," said Chris Wingert. "It's disappointing, but that's the way it is for the whole league. It's part of expanding, which I think for the most part is a good thing for the league."
The existing 16 teams can protect 11 players for the expansion draft, but if either Vancouver or Portland selects one of their players in the 10-round draft they get to add another player to the protected list.
Even if RSL loses a player or two, the core that the organization has worked so hard to develop over the past three years will be back in 2011.
"As far as I'm concerned, if you keep that core going, the pieces will fall into place. I honestly feel like they're trying to create a system where you can put multiple players in and still get the same result," said Russell. "That's what I think they'd be looking for."
That system was a big reason Real Salt Lake was able to succeed in MLS and the Champions League over the final three months of the season while constantly juggling lineups and traveling all over North America.
Consistency was perhaps RSL's biggest accomplishment this year, as it lost just seven of 40 games in all competitions.
"There were a lot of accomplishments we had this year. As much as you don't want to put your head down, there's a lot to look forward to next year because we accomplished so much this year and hopefully next year there's some hardware involved with it," said Rimando.
That quest begins in the quarterfinals of the Champions League in February.
Real Salt Lake won't have to worry about the CCL later next season, though, as it failed to qualify for one of MLS's four spots in the 2011-2012 competition. Those slots are awarded to the two MLS Cup participants (Colorado and Dallas), the Supporter's Shield winner (Los Angeles) and the U.S. Open Cup winner (Seattle).
The lightened schedule will allow coach Jason Kreis' team to focus all of its energy on winning the MLS Supporter's Shield.
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