Today is all about a 90-minute effort, plus stoppage time, for Real Salt Lake. It's not about 75 minutes, 80 minutes or even 89 minutes.
"Last year I think we gave a few 80-minute efforts and we ended up losing the games," said RSL midfielder Carey Talley. "With the group we've got, we can be tuned in for the whole 90 minutes."
For a franchise that's never enjoyed opening-day success, today's 4 p.m. kickoff against the Chicago Fire at Rice-Eccles Stadium is critical as far as setting the tone for the 2008 season. On opening day in 2007, RSL lost focus in the final 30 seconds of stoppage time against FC Dallas and allowed a tying goal by Carlos Ruiz.
That disappointment snowballed into a six-win season the first of which didn't come until late June a coaching change, and a revolving door of players only eight of whom are still around.
"The motivation is not to start how we've started each and every year. The guys who were here even last year don't want that feeling again," said midfielder Andy Williams, one of three players who's been with RSL since its inception in 2005.
Of the 28 players on Real's roster, very few know the specifics of the club's troubled past, and that's why coach Jason Kreis believes the losing mentality is a thing of the past. Translating that into a win against a Chicago team that advanced to last year's Eastern Conference championship won't be easy.
Even though the Fire have a lot of question marks along the backline heading into 2008, their attacking options in the midfield and up top are very good. It, of course, starts with Cuauhtetmoc Blanco, the Mexican National Team legend who's one of the most loved and hated players in MLS. In Chicago's 3-5-2 formation, Blanco's always roaming the field looking for the ball, and in particularly looking to draw a free kick in an opponent's defensive third.
"You just have to have the mind-set all the time of knowing where he is. I don't think we have to go and mark him man on man for the game, but we've got to be aware at all times where he is," said Kreis. "He's a player that can turn the game on its head in a moment's notice."
Blanco did just that with a 25-yard, left-footed bomb in Chicago's 2-0 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium last August.
With other attacking options like Justin Mapp, Chad Barrett and Chris Rolfe, Real Salt Lake can't just key on limiting Blanco's touches.
Unless Kreis utilizes a surprise tactic against Chicago, expect RSL to open the season with a 4-4-2 formation. It's not a traditional 4-4-2, however, with all four midfielders preferring to play in the middle of the pitch. As a result, it puts a lot of reliance on the team's outside backs to push up and occupy the space on the wings, especially while attacking. Chris Wingert hasn't been limited in training this week by the minor knee injury he sustained in Argentina, and it appears he'll get the starting nod at one of the outside backs along with Ian Joy.
If they're able to push into the attack with some consistency, it should help RSL offset Chicago's man-advantage in the midfield.
"In the past few years, we've never been able to keep the ball. We're the fittest team because we're chasing the ball the whole time," said Talley. "This year we've worked hard on possession and worked hard on playing together as a group, and defending as a group and not being so spread out so there's guys running mad all over the place."
While Talley says fans can expect a spirited 90-minute effort, striker Yura Movsisyan believes the camaraderie of this team will be noticeable as well."(Fans) will definitely see everyone on the field working really, really hard for each other," he said. "They're going to see a lot of passion from us, and we're going to try and go for the win and play good soccer."
Fire at RSL, 4 p.m.