In nearly every run to a championship on the field of play, there are matches full of agony and ecstacy, contests clouded by moments of doubt and victories followed by hours of sheer joy.
Twice in the past five Major League Soccer seasons, Real Salt Lake has ridden this wave of emotion and momentum to a berth in the MLS Cup. Real will be attempting to win its second league championship when it takes on Sporting KC in the title game Saturday (2 p.m. MST, ESPN).
Both this season and in 2009, Real Salt Lake endured trials during the season, then enjoyed key moments and clutch plays during the playoffs to advance to the championship game. Here's a look back at the journey for RSL in 2013 and 2009:
Whitney O'Bannon is a new media sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow on Twitter at @whitney_oban.
For the second time in five seasons, RSL finds itself playing in the MLS Cup, and there were plenty of highs and lows this year that have shaped this team. Here's 10 significant RSL games so far from the 2013 season:
Beating the L.A. Galaxy at home is always a memorable night for Real Salt Lake, but this victory was special for one player in particular. Olmes Garcia scored a spectacular goal with a flick off his back to give RSL the advantage in the 85th minute. Then in stoppage time he added another one off a beautiful breakaway to secure the 3-1 win in front of a sold-out crowd.
“To score twice is something beautiful,’’ Garcia said through a translator. “I’m thankful to the people who come to support us. I’m thankful to my teammates — they help me and we win tonight. I’m thankful to God I have the opportunity to score.’’
In addition to the RSL newcomer's stunning night, the game was also a chance for revenge against the Galaxy. L.A. visited Rio Tinto just a month and a half prior to this outing, and dished out a 2-0 whooping of its own. This time was different, though, as Real Salt Lake didn't allow the Galaxy to jump on them early and outplayed L.A. in almost every way possible. RSL was becoming an entirely different team from early on in the season as this result extended the team's now-famous unbeaten streak to five games.
June was a dream month for Real Salt Lake. The Claret-and-Cobalt finished the month perfect, 6-0-0 across all competitions. RSL outscored opponents 17-3 and recorded four shutouts in the midst of a killer unbeaten streak. With all cylinders clicking at that time, Real was a force in the MLS.
For a quiet scoring night from both sides, this matchup was drama-filled. RSL midfielder Yordany Alvarez put some heat on the ball and rocketed an outside shot to the far netting to put his team up 1-0 just before halftime. As the game wore on both Real Salt Lake and Toronto became heated with 27 total fouls committed. In the 80th minute, the referee showed red cards to both RSL defender Tony Beltran and Toronto's Doneil Henry for fighting.
Intensity following that exchange only grew, but RSL veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando kept his head and proved he's still one of the best in the MLS after recording four saves, most of them coming in the closing minutes of the game. But the play of the game came from Nat Borchers. After making a defensive mistake, Borchers recovered with a clutch clearance off the line with mere seconds remaining in stoppage time. Real Salt Lake rolled out of Canada with its first-ever win on Canadian soil.
Only one week following its heroics in Canada and after playing six games in three weeks, Real Salt Lake did it again by winning for the first time ever in Texas. That state was like a ghost town of missed opportunities for the Claret-and-Cobalt until, against all odds, RSL beat FC Dallas in its home stadium.
"It's good because I've never won a game here," Kreis said after the game. "Even when I was playing we'd come back and we usually would get beaten. It's been the same way since I've been coaching. It feels good."
Although Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Tony Beltran were away on international duty, the RSL men played with grit and a chip on their shoulders. FC Dallas came out firing, but couldn't get anything past Josh Saunders, who was filling in for RSL's main man Rimando. Despite Real's limited scoring chances in the first half, acting captain Javier Morales managed to make the most of a lucky ricochet and nutmegged FCD defender Zach Loyd. RSL took a 1-0 lead into the locker room.
But disaster struck in the opening minutes of the second half as Saunders went down with an ACL knee injury. In came third-string keeper Jeff Attinella but nobody on RSL looked worried about the kid making his first MLS appearance. And for good reason.
Attinella stunned everyone in his first game with key, fast-reflex saves for the remaining 39 minutes and kept a clean slate. RSL added two more goals to clinch the road victory.
At this point RSL was in the midst of a hot streak. Winning, giving the younger guys opportunities to play and overcoming adversity drove the players closer than ever. The RSL brotherhood was forming, putting team chemistry at an all-time high.
This game was a huge opportunity at the time with all the major publications, RSL personnel and fans predicting its possible playoff implications. Several people at the time predicted this showdown between the league's top two teams could be a preview of what to expect come playoffs. Oh the foreshadowing, as the two teams will now match up for round two in the 2013 MLS Cup on Saturday.
With RSL's 11-game unbeaten streak on the line and several players sidelined due to injuries and international duty, Real Salt Lake fought hard but fell to Sporting off a last-second goal in stoppage time. In the 97th minute KC's Ike Opara headed a shot just past the reach of Jeff Attinella which silenced the shocked crowd at Rio Tinto. That was the last play of the game an RSL fell to the No. 2 spot in the Supporters' Shield race.
The game was devastating for RSL and despite trying to move on quickly from the loss, Real Salt Lake struggled in the coming weeks.
If there is one thing Real Salt Lake did consistently this season, it would be earning favorable results against the Timbers. This was the second of six matchups with Portland across all competitions, and it was a thriller.
Real Salt Lake trailed 3-2 as extra stoppage time started to tick off the clock. It appeared that the Claret-and-Cobalt would drop yet another game since beginning to struggle following its loss to Sporting KC. But unlike the majority of RSL's recent games, Jason Kreis' players were giving this game a gutsy, all-out effort and they deserved a result.
However, reserve midfielder Cole Grossman and late second-half substitution saved RSL three minutes into stoppage time with a carefully placed, left-footed shot. The point was Grossman's first-ever Major League Soccer goal, and it couldn't have come at a more memorable time.
“It was a fantastic effort by Cole, by everyone to fight throughout that on this field, on this surface, with a good team like that," Tony Beltran said.
U.S. Open Cup Final
In the saddest, most painful loss of the season, Real Salt Lake fell to D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup final. RSL took chance after chance, but didn't have the finishing touch that evening. After conceding a goal in the first half, Real never recovered and watched D.C. celebrate on its own turf.
“This team has a choice right now, we can let this thing bring us down and affect our future results, or we can put it behind us and move on, that’s a choice we have to make right now,” Nat Borchers said following the loss.
RSL did make the choice. They moved on and finished the season out strong with a No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
This game wasn't a stunning last-second win or a day RSL wants to remember at all, but it was one of the most significant games of the season. It was RSL's easiest and surest path to a trophy in 2013. All they had to do was beat league-worst D.C. United in the comforts of Rio Tinto. Well, Real Salt Lake found out it wasn't such a given and this loss has driven RSL to compete with ferocity for the MLS Cup. This missed opportunity might just have been what Salt Lake needed to find its drive for the rest of the season.
Playing against Chivas, the last-place team in the West, may not seem like an important game; however with only a couple points separating teams in the playoff race every win counted. The last game of RSL's 2013 campaign was significant for RSL because they needed the win to stay No. 1 in the Western Conference at the time and overall clinch a top two playoff seed.
Hosting Chivas USA and needing a favorable result was a trap game that RSL handled perfectly. Javier Morales, who was nursing an ankle injury at the time, sparked a second-half run. As Morales controlled the midfield, things began to open up for forwards Joao Plata and Alvaro Saborio. Both scored early in the half, Saborio off a penalty kick, lifting RSL to its last victory of the regular season.
Playoffs (No. 2 seed, Western Conference)
Won, 2-0, Advanced 2-1 aggregate
The playoffs for Real Salt Lake, still fresh in everyone's mind, started with L.A. Galaxy. Despite having the home field advantage, RSL came into leg two of the Western Conference semifinals down a goal.
After Jason Kreis called upon second-year midfielder Sebastian Velasquez to start in place of injured Ned Grabavoy, it didn't take long for the young man to make his mark. In the 35th minute Velasquez netted his first MLS goal off a beautifully placed cross from Chris Wingert to even the aggregate score.
At the end of regulation, the series score remained 1-1 and overtime ensued. Thirteen minutes into overtime Chris Schuler made contact with the ball and headed it into L.A.'s net. RSL held on through the rest of overtime and sent the two-time defending champions packing. More importantly, Real found a way to win a huge game at home in front of its adoring fans and move on in the playoffs.
Playoffs, Western Conference Finals
After such an incredible outing against L.A. at home, RSL had to turn around and do it again three days later versus the Timbers. Doubts floated around the Salt Lake squad, wondering if they could do it again. RSL didn't disappoint by playing aggressive from start to finish.
After former teammate and Timbers captain Will Johnson made it rain on Salt Lake early, Real Salt Lake could have shut down and maybe in seasons past they would have. But instead RSL did just the opposite, turning the aggressiveness up a notch.
In the 35th minute a hard-charging Chris Schuler got his head on the ball in the box and scored for the second straight game. Minutes later Robbie Findley got in the books after finishing up sloppy defending by Futty Danso. In the second half, Devon Sandoval calmly shot past Ricketts from close range and Javier Morales added a diving header goal. The flashy goal scoring was in full force that for a rowdy crowd at Rio Tinto. As RSL proceeded to run away with not only the game but also the series, Portland kept it within reason after scoring in the 94th minute.
Playoffs, Western Conference Finals
Won, 1-0, Advanced 5-2 aggregate
The second leg of the Western Conference finals may not have been as flashy, but Real Salt Lake played to win. Heading into the game, the aggregate score seemed like a doable differential to make up for the Timbers. However after Robbie Findley scored in the 35th minute, a visible amount of hope fled the faces of the Portland Timbers.
The game was hard fought and Portland played well, but it couldn't manage to finish any of its chances. As Real Salt Lake celebrated with traveling fans and a trophy, the Timbers hung up their boots for the year. RSL had finally made it back to the MLS Cup final for the first time since 2009.
Now a look a Real Salt Lake's 2009 season and MLS Cup run. It had several similarities to this year, although a vastly different feel to it from this season's campaign. Here's 10 significant RSL games from the 2009 title-winning season:
When Real Salt Lake took on the defending MLS Cup champions in their home opener of the 2009 season, a serious thrashing ensued. RSL left nothing up to the imagination in this convincing win over the Columbus Crew.
Robbie Findley scored a hat trick to lift his team over Columbus, which was the first in RSL history. Findley scored his first of the night only two minutes into the game. He added two more in the 29th and 62 minute. Kyle Beckerman tacked on one of his own in the 67th minute after RSL already had the game well in hand.
"We've wanted a night like that for Robbie Findley for a while now," coach Jason Kreis said. "The staff and the entire team has a lot of belief in what Robbie Findley can be. He showed some of it tonight."
The soccer gods smiled down upon Real Salt Lake that day as Jason Kreis' club broke records. RSL made it rain on New England, and oh did it pour in the final 45 minutes. Real tallied six goals in the second half, breaking a franchise record and tying the league record.
"It's very rare in a professional soccer player's life that you can be a part of a match like that where really almost everything that happened tonight was flawless for our team. It just doesn't happen enough," Kreis told the Deseret News. "That was awesome, it was fun to be a part of."
With the six goals, though one would have done the trick as well, RSL defeated one of the top teams in MLS at the time.
When Real Salt Lake ends a seven-game losing streak with a road win over the L.A. Galaxy, it's a good night.
RSL took on a Landon Donovan-less Galaxy, and didn't even notice his absence. Real's Yura Movsisyan netted an early goal and then L.A. Galaxy's Eddie Lewis received a red card in the the second half. RSL capitalized on the 10-man Galaxy and worked to a 2-0 road victory.
"It's just one win. We got the fourth win of the season, which is great, and hopefully now we can put that little slump we had behind us," Kyle Beckerman said after the game. "And now let's get back and try and get in those playoffs."
The draw against Houston at home disappointed Real Salt Lake. The club was fighting for a playoff berth and sought out three full points only to come up shy of that. RSL had a chance to a man up after a red card was issued to Houston in the 36th minute. An unlucky bout struck Rio Tinto that night, though, and striker Clint Mathis earned himself the same fate just after halftime.
Real Salt Lake played a complete game, but surely could have used the advantage of an extra man. Earning a draw at home set RSL back in its quest for the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake's midweek matchup with Chivas USA had big time playoff implications. The season was winding down and it was time for RSL to prove they deserved to be in the playoffs. It was technically too early to be a must-win game, but Real new the advantage three points would bring.
With the win, RSL tied with Toronto, New England and Colorado for the final two playoff spots heading into the home stretch. It was important to stay with those teams and not fall behind.
Real Salt Lake outshot Chivas 16-6 and Fabian Espindola scored his first career goal in the rout of one of the league's top teams at the time.
With both teams in the hunt for a playoff berth, losing to Toronto put intense pressure on RSL again. The race for the final seed in the playoffs was tight and one underperformance could've ruined RSL's chances. The loss capped a streak of 1-3-1 as RSL struggled late in the season, right when more than anything they needed to be playing their best soccer.
Real Salt Lake was pinned up in its final regular season game with Colorado, and RSL needed to win. And not only win, they really needed to beat the Rapids by two or more goals to get enough points and own the tiebreaker to advance to the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake took Colorado down 3-0 at Rio Tinto that night and ended up advancing in the playoffs as the last seed. Robbie Findley put RSL up by two goals in the first half and substitute Yura Movsisyan tacked on a goal in the 85th minute. In 2009, earning the Rocky Mountain Cup was sweeter than ever.
"I think that has to go down as one of the best RSL games in the history of the franchise," Jason Kreis said. "The performance was second to none tonight. It was so rewarding to see the players play that way when all the chips were on the table. Last year in those scenarios, that's when our team played the worst."
Playoffs (Western Conference No. 5 seed)
Won 3-2, Advanced 4-2 aggregate
Real Salt Lake failed to beat Columbus on the road earlier in the season, but put away this one to win the series soundly 4-2. The Crew were quick to score on RSL as Guillermo Barros Schelotto scored twice early in the first half. In the 37th minute Javier Morales took one back for RSL and evened up the aggregate score. Real Salt Lake went up again after Robbie Findley scored off a penalty kick and Real Salt Lake held on to advance to the conference finals.
It wasn't all goal-scoring and offense, though. Nick Rimando had a key save in the 85th minute and his eight on the night played a key role for RSL.
Playoffs, Eastern Conference Finals
Won, 0-0 (5-4 penalty kicks)
After a three-hour match, Real Salt Lake advanced to the MLS Cup final. The two teams played 120 minutes of soccer, but Real Salt Lake and the Chicago Fire still found themselves tied up at nill. This pushed the game to penalty kicks and an incredible drama unfolded.
Nick Rimando made a huge save to push RSL ahead. Fabian Espindola had a chance to win the game, but his shot sailed well high of the crossbar. Rimando then made three big saves in a row, setting up second half substitute Ned Grabavoy for the winning shot. Grabavoy easily scored and earned RSL an Eastern Conference championship.
Won, 1-1 (5-4 penalty kicks)
Real Salt Lake didn't get enough drama from the conference finals, so after another 120-minute game, penalty kicks ensued. Robbie Russell buried the decisive kick in the seventh round of penalty kicks, which happened just two rounds after Andy Williams blew a chance to win it when his shot was saved by L.A. back-up keeper Josh Saunders — one of two saves by Saunders in the shootout.
"I thought we played our hearts out tonight. We played our style of soccer. When we play our style of soccer it's pretty fun to watch and it's pretty fun to play," RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said.
It was the perfect ending to a wild ride.