LEHI, Utah — As MLS champions, Real Salt Lake are entering unchartered territory this season, with the privilege of playing in their first CONCACAF Champions League tournament coming up this August.
That creates a new dynamic with both their approach to league play and their approach to U.S. Open Cup action (RSL faces San Jose on Wednesday night).
When asked independently about what Real Salt Lake wants to accomplish with their Open Cup qualifying matches, GM Garth Lagerwey and coach Jason Kreis are perfectly in sync: “We want to win.”
Open Cup play-in matches haven’t almost received the greatest attention by clubs who would give the matches more attention if they were in the tournament proper, but view the play-in games as more of a hindrance. Every team, however, steps on the field to win, and every team uses these matches as an opportunity to develop younger players. However, there are varying degrees of the emphasis placed on each.
So how does Real Salt Lake view these matches? Lagerwey and Kreis each gave MLSsoccer.com some clues recently.
Long-term strategy: Lagerwey feels that both the Open Cup and Champions League tournaments fit with the club's long-term strategy.
“We think it’s a step forward for us to be able compete in multiple competitions," he said, "and if we’re going to become an elite team in this league, we think we need to become successful in multiple competitions.”
This strategy has certainly evolved over the past three years as Lagerwey and Kreis have worked to turn a team that was once consistently at the bottom of the table into not only a contender, but current MLS Cup champions.
Consistency and respect: The buzzword that’s been most heard around the locker room and training field this season has been “consistency.” Kreis believes it's key to what they're trying to accomplish this season.
“We want to consistently compete for championships," he said. "We want to consistently perform.”
Lagerwey agrees, adding that consistency is important to revamping the reputation of the club around the league.
“We’ve won an MLS championship and I don’t think we get a lot of respect," he said. "One of the ways to earn respect is to be successful across every competition that we enter.”
So how does the Open Cup play into all of this? And how does it relate to the Champions League?
Laying the groundwork for CONCACAF: Kreis believes RSL's Open Cup participation will help lay the foundation for a stretch of six Champions League games in eight weeks later this summer.
"We're going there to do our best to win and we're going there expecting to win," he explained. "And yes, we may have to lean on a few more pieces. But guess what? We're going to have to do it at the end of the season, so we might as well figure out now whether or not we're built for that."
Increased stakes: In addition, it sounds as if Major League Soccer may be set to provide more incentive for its teams to take the Open Cup seriously.
“The league is likely to attach a prize to winning the tournament this time," said Lagerway. "They’ve indicated that they're behind it and think it’s important, and I think it’s important to our organization.”
What that prize will be is unknown at this time, however, there is another prize that is more of a known quantity involving Open Cup play.
Player Development: A clear benefit of the play-in game is the opportunity to give younger players the chance to play in meaningful games, however Lagerwey cautions, “One game isn’t enough -- they need three, four, five games. The best way to do that is to go deep into the Open Cup.”
One player that Real Salt Lake are looking to find development opportunities for is Luis Gil, the U.S. U-18 midfielder recently acquired via trade with Kansas City.
“We will ensure for his development that he will get some games,” Lagerwey explained. “I’m just not sure that the Open Cup is it -- he’s either ready or he’s not -- that’s a coach’s decision.”
MLS Cup is still the goal: "Look, we want to win the MLS Cup championship," Kreis said flatly. "We’re always going to want to win that tournament.”
However, it’s not as simple as focusing on one single goal. “We give ourselves a better chance to win the Cup if we’re the Supporters' Shield holders," he added. "There are definitely multiple goals."
Supporters' Shield, player development, MLS Cup trophy, Open Cup success and CONCACAF Champions League -- all on the Real Salt Lake radar. Can RSL do it all? Only time will tell.