SANDY — Years from now, when Jason Kreis' resume contains more pages about his accomplishments as a coach than a player, his 2011 season with Real Salt Lake is one he'll never forget for a variety of reasons.
Losses and adversity often reveal more about a team's character than wins and championships, and RSL's willingness to keep fighting will be Kreis' lasting image of the season.
"I think that, above all else, our team kept fighting and kept believing, and that means a lot to me personally," said Kreis.
With everything RSL went through this year, from the Champions League loss to the Javier Morales injury to the ridiculous number of games missed because of injuries, suspensions and national team call-ups, it would've been easy for the players to throw up their hands in disbelief.
Instead, the players dug deeper. Facing adversity that might've buried other teams, RSL sucked it up and finished with the third-best record in Major League Soccer and advanced to the Western Conference championship.
"When we take a step back and look at it, there's a lot to be proud of," said RSL president Bill Manning.
Even on what turned about to be the final day of the season, Real Salt Lake was still dealing with a mountain of adversity regarding injured center backs Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave. After bowing out of the playoffs to the Galaxy, Kreis said the Western Conference final was a microcosm of the entire season.
"We had our disappointments. We had some brilliance. We had some moments of averageness ... but one thing that never changed was our guys fought and fought and fought, even when they're down two goals they're still fighting," said Kreis. "There was no quit in our guys, I'm extremely proud of what our guys did in this game and even more proud of what they did in the season."
Make no mistake, though, Kreis wants to win championships, and Real Salt Lake was 0-for-2 in 2011. RSL's coach and general manager Garth Lagerwey head into the offseason with one goal in mind: improve the team to win a championship in 2012.
"We've had two years of playing pretty good with no titles to show for it and that's definitely disappointing," said Lagerwey.
As much as the Morales injury impacted Real Salt Lake during the five months he was out, so too did defensive and discipline issues.
A year after setting an MLS regular-season record with just 20 goals against, RSL conceded 36 this year. Through the first 18 games, it was one of the better teams in the league with a 9-3-6 record and only 12 goals against. Over the last 16 games, however, RSL conceded 24 goals and struggled down the stretch with a 6-8-2 record.
Red cards contributed to some of defensive struggles. In 2010, RSL didn't have a single ejection during the entire regular season, but this year it had a staggering seven ejections.
To the team's credit, it finished with a 3-3-1 record in those seven games, but when you're battling for the Supporter's Shield against a team with three times your payroll, you can't afford to drop points needlessly along the way.
For the most part, Kreis was pleased with the contributions of his bench players this year — particularly Luis Gil and Chris Schuler — but he wants more production out of them next season.
"I think we need to get our roster deeper. I think it needs to be 28 strong that we can rely on next year, but we won't need to rely on a lot of those players until the end of the season," said Kreis.
By finishing third in MLS this year, Real Salt Lake qualified for the 2012-2013 CONCACAF Champions League. That means a busy schedule next fall and the need for more players to contribute.
Over the next week and months, RSL has some roster decisions to make. First and foremost is striker Fabian Espindola. There's one more option year on his contract with MLS, but it's a very expensive option.
"You basically have to decide if Fabian's a Best XI striker or not, and if you think he is it's easy. Faby had his best year of his career this year. He was a major, major contributor, I think he's an excellent player. It's honestly less about Fabian's contract and more about the salary cap. The salary cap forces you to make difficult choices," said Lagerwey.
Other players who are out of contract are Robbie Russell, Ned Grabavoy, Arturo Alvarez and Andy Williams. It's unlikely RSL will be able to retain all five with a $2.81 million salary cap.
Regardless of who they're able to keep, when the team gathers in late January next year for the preseason, Real Salt Lake will again be among the league favorites. If it can avoid another devastating injury, it should challenge for the Supporter's Shield.
"We were so close to winning a couple big trophies, and to come up short leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth, but you've just got to get back after it. Hopefully, if we get the opportunity again, we'll win one of those trophies," said defender Chris Wingert.
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