SANDY, Utah – Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Real Salt Lake wore that crown as best they could in 2010, only to falter a little too much during a Western Conference semifinal series against FC Dallas that left head coach Jason Kreis wondering how well his team handled the pressure when it counted.
“I think in the last couple of matches, we were a victim of our own expectations,” Kreis said. “We were playing with this angst that, ‘What if we lose? What if we lose this series and don’t repeat as champions?’ We expected more of ourselves, and that’s different than it ever has been here. And I don’t think that ultimately we dealt the greatest with that.”
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True enough, expectations were meager at best for an RSL team that reached the Eastern Conference final in 2008 and then stunningly surged to win the MLS Cup in 2009. But the situation was vastly different this season, when RSL carried the newfound weight of expectations into a postseason series against FC Dallas, who perhaps few expected to sincerely challenge for their first MLS title.
RSL struggled to scratch out a 2-2 draw in the regular season finale against the Colorado Rapids and then coughed up an early 1-0 lead to FC Dallas in a 2-1 loss in the series opener. They never found the equalizer to an early FC Dallas goal from Dax McCarty on Saturday, and Kreis admitted his team played a little timid from the opening whistle in the biggest match of their season.
“In years past, we’ve played with no fear,” Kreis said. “And that’s the way [FC Dallas] are playing right now. There’s no expectation on them. We played a little tentatively and a little bit scared because we were nervous to lose, and you can never be at your best when you're a little bit nervous and a little bit scared.”
RSL grinded out results down the stretch in both 2008 and 2009 to even reach the postseason, trying desperately to erase the memories of the club’s early struggles in their first three years on the map. But they were the favorites largely from opening day this time around both among the public and certainly within their own locker room, a vastly different dynamic than in years past.
“[In 2008 and 2009] There was a just feeling that it didn’t matter if we lose, because that’s what everybody expected,” Kreis said. “But this year it just felt different to me. It felt like the guys were nervous about, ‘What if we lose?’ How would that reflect on this season and all the great things we’ve done?”
It will reflect largely the way it has for the vast majority of MLS champions who failed to win a second straight title. The weight of expectations will always be heavier the second time around, whether the champions are prepared to carry it or not.