Three winters ago I dropped in on Real while they were training outside Rosario, Argentina for what became a cover story called Reality Check. At that time the team was the joke of the MLS league, never winning away, struggling to even draw at home, and at that point without a stadium.
I spent some time with coach Jason Kreis and what struck me most about his quiet, unassuming, steely manner was his zen-like sense of purpose. Despite being one of the very few players in MLS appointed as a coach at that time, Kreis knew exactly what he wanted, the team he wanted to build, the kind of stylish, graceful yet aggressive soccer he wanted to see on the field. And this evening, that vision will surely be on display for 90 plus minutes of hard, grinding play.
Part of Real's success is undoubtedly attributable to the passion of its fans, some of whose stories I told in a later cover story called Real Passion. Whereas last season the numerous fan clubs seemed to form their own little cliques, this year's games have demonstrated a greater unity of fandom around the Sandy stadium that is more than matched in the fluid drive of the core of talented players - Morales, Beckerman, Wingert, Williams, Espindola - the taciturn Kreis and the more talkative team manager Garth Lagerway have built their team upon.
The last minute goal by midfielder Javier Morales that led Real into the final game with Monterrey at home with a 2-2 draw behind them was the perfect example of the kind of soccer Kreis both admires and searches for. A dazzlingly delicate piece of foot work just outside the goal that wrong-footed a defender and then a shot by Morales driven into the far corner of the goal.
At their best, whether Real is flooding their own goal mouth to grind down attacks or pulling off beautifully executed build-ups from midfield as they attack the opposing team's goal, there's an organic genius to the best of their playing that defines Kreis and Lagerway's passion for great soccer.
Real Salt Lake has proven a gift to U.S. soccer but far more so to the Beehive capital. They are the ultimate underdog and their success - whatever the final score tonight - is surely one every Utahn can take pride in.