KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Before Saturday’s MLS Cup final, Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis said he was prouder of this year’s team than any he has coached in his seven-year run at the club.
And although they came up short in their bid for a second championship in five years, Kreis thinks the pieces are in place for RSL to make another title charge in 2014 – irrespective of any big decision he has looming.
“I don’t think this team is going to be changed in any large way,” he said in the postgame press conference. “Again, you have gotten too successful to really do anything else. There’s a ton of really young, talented players with this group.”
This year’s RSL were a team that overachieved to within inches of the ultimate prize. After an offseason reboot that saw three longtime starters shipped off and the emergence of youngsters such as Luis Gil (20 years old), Sebastian Velasquez (22), Devon Sandoval (22) and Carlos Salcedo (20) in prominent roles, Kreis thought RSL would be, at best, a .500 team in 2013.
They showed they were wise beyond their years. With most of the old core still intact to guide the youth movement, the Claret-and-Cobalt finished a point behind the first-place Portland Timbers in the Western Conference, reached the final of the US Open Cup and knocked off the two-time defending champion LA Galaxy and the Timbers on their way back to a second MLS Cup final appearance in five years.
Then they went toe-to-toe with Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night in the frigid, hostile environs of Sporting Park in what Kreis called an “outstanding” performance. If not for three timely interventions from the goalpost, they could have won the game in regulation.
But it wasn’t to be, as RSL bowed out in an epic penalty-kick shootout that went 10 rounds after a 1-1 draw in regular time and two scoreless extratime frames.
And although tears were shed on the Sporting Park pitch, and the locker room somber in the aftermath, the players know they’ve got a lot to look forward to once they get over the heartbreak.
“I've never been part of a group that's been more together than this group here,” veteran center back Nat Borchers told reporters. “We really have a lot to build on, a lot of positive things I think given the performance we put in.
“We've got a lot of good, young players that have stepped up in the playoffs. They stepped up at the end of the game, which is fantastic to see. … I bring a lot of positives out of this.”
Apparently some of those youngsters did, too. Velasquez in particular – who cruelly missed what would have been a title-clinching kick deep into the shootout – says the taste of coming so close will only make him hungrier for another run next year and in the years to come.
“We know what it takes, we know the little things that count the most to get to this situation,” he told MLSsoccer.com on Saturday night. “We’ve got to lift our heads high.
“Honestly, it was an incredible season. People didn’t think we’d make it this far. We’re proud of the guys and we’ve just got to move forward.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.