Real Salt Lake began the 2011 season last year with the hope of winning not just one trophy, but four. Little by little, those hopes began to unravel in an unforgettable season for its many highs and lows. With everything the team endured, finishing third in MLS was a huge accomplishment and something everyone associated with the club was proud of. Before looking ahead at the promise of the 2012 season which begins this Saturday in Los Angeles, here's a look back at some of the images and moments that came to define a Real Salt Lake season of near-misses and almosts in 2011.
When RSL dropped a 3-0 result at Vancouver last October, it marked the club's fourth straight loss, the first time that had happened since 2007. During that four-game slide in July of 2007 — in Jason Kreis' first year as coach — RSL was outscored 7-2. During its four losses late in 2011, it was outscored 12-2.
When Paulo Jr. scored his second goal of the season on April 9 in a 2-0 win at New England, it was a promising moment as the youngster looked to solidify himself as the third striker on the RSL depth chart. He injured himself a week later against Colorado, and didn't start another match again until September. He never scored another goal the rest of the season, a year in which countless players missed time on the field for an assortment of reasons.
Whether it was sour grapes or not, Real Salt Lake believed it came out on the short-end of numerous referee decisions throughout the 2011 season. The players and coaches didn't complain publicly often, but it was an underlying theme after numerous matches throughout the year. That frustration came to a head on June 18 when D.C. United's Charlie Davies took a dive in the 85th minute at Rio Tinto Stadium, and was awarded an equalizing penalty kick.
After tallying 18 goals across all competitions in 2010, Alvaro Saborio got off to an insanely slow start in 2011 as he didn't score his first league goal until June 25. The Costa Rican striker scored two goals in the Champions League knockout stages, but two goals in 12 matches was not the production RSL expected from a striker it paid designated player money to buyout his contract.
Real Salt Lake headed to Dallas on July 12 knowing it was an underdog in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals, but genuinely believing it had the quality necessary to pull off the victory. RSL said it was serious about winning the U.S. Open Cup heading into the match, and backed it up by starting a first choice lineup against FC Dallas — outside of Alvaro Saborio, who was left home for team disciplinary reasons. With 97 degree temperatures at kickoff, Dallas scored in the 18th minute and then again in the 54th minute as it prevailed 2-0.
When Kyle Beckerman head-butted Chicago's Daniel Paladini in a match in late-September, it marked RSL's seventh red card of the MLS campaign. A year after not picking up a single red card, the lack of discipline in 2011 and the surge in red cards was a huge problem. RSL also picked up two red cards in the Champions League quarterfinals, bringing the season total to nine. Beckerman's red card against Chicago resulted in a suspension for the rest of the regular season.
Five weeks after Real Salt Lake fell to Monterrey in the Champions League final, Seattle rolled into Rio Tinto Stadium and dealt the home team another stunning defeat. RSL hadn't lost at home in 29 straight league matches dating back to May of 2009. With the match scoreless in the 58th minute, things unfolded pretty quickly when Jamison Olave was red-carded for the first time since 2009. Seattle built a 2-0 lead and then held off a late RSL rally.
For everything that went wrong for Real Salt Lake in 2011, amazingly it still found itself in the Western Conference final against the L.A. Galaxy. It wasn't under ideal circumstances though as Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave both went into the match hobbled by hamstring injuries. Only one played, and the Galaxy took advantage of the patchwork backline with the 3-1 victory that helped avenge the 2009 MLS Cup loss.
Ten days after falling in the Champions League final, things went from bad to worse in what should've been just another regular season match at Rio Tinto Stadium. Late in the first half, Chivas USA's Marcos Mondaini made a clumsy challenge from behind against Javier Morales and broke his ankle. RSL went on to win the match 1-0 with a late goal, but it would be without the services of its all-star midfielder for the next five months.
It was a dream scenario at Rio Tinto Stadium last April when Real Salt Lake hosted Monterrey in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final. RSL was coming off a 2-2 draw in Monterrey, and all it needed in the second leg to claim the continental championship was a tie at home. Humberto Suazo, however, spoiled those plans scoring late in the first half, and then the Rayados survived an onslaught throughout the second half to spoil RSL's title hopes in front of 20,378 fans with the 1-0 victory.