The end of an era is approaching for Real Salt Lake.
Rice-Eccles Stadium was the first home for the expansion Major League Soccer franchise that began playing in 2005. It has seen some good times Real won its home-opener and boasts an undefeated 7-0-5 mark there this season along with the bad an overall losing record of 15-19-13 coming into the 2008 season. With its new soccer-specific stadium set to open next month in Sandy, Saturday's game against Chivas USA marks the last time RSL will play on the University of Utah campus.
"I will probably shed a tear," joked coach Jason Kreis, who played 2 1/2 years there before moving into the head coaching position. "It's a good thing, for sure, to be finally moving out of there and into our own place. You can make complaints about the surface or complaints about this, that or the other, but for me, it was a good place. I really felt like the fans came there and they were close enough to make a difference. I look back at all the games there and feel like our fans have been fantastic."
Each player has his own memories of the venue some good, some not so good.
"Turf," said Clint Mathis of the first thing he thought when reminiscing about the stadium. "My mom said if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. No, it's not that bad. As a soccer player, you want your own home, and you definitely want to play on grass as far as your body goes. But it was nice to have some type of stadium to play in where we could bring professional soccer to this market. At the same time, I am excited to say goodbye to it and move into our own home.
"I wish I could say I had better memories of playing there that first year, but it was not a great season for me or for the team. I will really just remember all of the struggles we went through," Mathis added.
The artificial playing surface was almost always one of the first things brought up by opponents after suffering a defeat at the hands of RSL. The funny bounces, the speed, the impact on joints and the wear and tear on a body were always on the minds of players. At least, until they got into the action of a game.
"It really isn't that bad until you start to think about it, that's when it really beats up on your body," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando of playing on the artificial turf. "When you are playing the game, you don't really think about it, you just think about saving the ball and it doesn't really bother you."
Even if it is out of his mind, it doesn't mean that Rimando enjoys landing on the harder surface more than real grass. Departing RES is the next step for the club.
"No hard feelings to be leaving," added Rimando. "I think if we can continue our streak at home, there will be no hard feelings leaving at all. We are excited to get into that new stadium. Rice-Eccles has been home and has been great to RSL, but it is time to move on."
Kenny Cutler is one of the few remaining original team members from that first season, and he, too, has mixed feelings about the stadium on the hill.
"It's been our home, my home, for four years, so there are some definite emotions and feelings there," said Cutler. "To be moving into the new stadium is so exciting that we are thinking more about that than leaving Rice-Eccles. I feel like Rice-Eccles will always be a part of this team, since we started there. We still drive by it all the time and think about all the games.
"One of the best memories for me was in that first year we had a friendly against a Chilean club," continued Cutler. "It was one of my first times getting out on the field, and I scored a goal. Up to that point, I hadn't really had a chance with the first team, but that was when I think I showed I could play. I went on to start a lot of games that year and that was my moment."
If Saturday's contest is the last soccer game ever hosted in Rice-Eccles, there are still plenty of great memories. In 2003, the team played host to an international friendly between the U.S. Women's National team and Ireland. It was a chance for Utahns to meet Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandy Chastain and Kristine Lilly as the Americans won 5-0. In 2005, the Men's National Team played host to Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier as Landon Dovovan, DeMarcus Beasley and Kasey Keller helped the U.S. to a 3-0 win.
One of the world's most famous soccer clubs paid a visit to the stadium in 2006 as Real Salt Lake hosted Real Madrid. Players such as Ruud VanNistelrooy, David Beckham, Raul and Robinho were present on the pitch.
For coach Kreis, his greatest memory was a personal achievement.
"My hundredth goal, no doubt about it," said Kreis of his favorite Rice-Eccles memory. "There was a huge crowd that night. It was the first opportunity I had. To sit on 99, and then the very next game to take the opportunity to score No. 100 was big to me. The way the crowd reacted, you could tell that they knew what was going on; they knew that was the 100th and they gave me an awesome, awesome response."
While the team had its struggles at home in its first three seasons, Real has turned the tables in 2008 and is the only team without a loss at home.
"I think that if we were sitting in the same place as we have the prior three years, every word out of our mouths right now would be bad about that place," added Kreis.
"This year, for whatever reason, it became a bit of a fortress for us. Let's hope we can finish it off right," said Kreis.
"At the beginning of the year, we formulated some team goals and we wanted to be extremely hard to beat at home," Cutler said. "I think more than anything it has been the attitude we have. We decided that we just were not going to lose at home. It was our place and we didn't want to let anyone come in and take it."The swan song for Rice-Eccles has been coming ever since the plans for the new stadium were finalized. Plenty of memories were created and team history was made. Whether it was scoring droughts, winning streaks or losing streaks, the time spent at Rice-Eccles will be looked back upon just like the stadium itself on game days either half empty or half full.
E-mail: [email protected]