With no star names cluttering up their roster, Real Salt Lake have charted a course for success in Major League Soccer based on simple values: family, hard work, and a sturdy core. While the likes of Thierry Henry’s Red Bulls in the Big Apple and Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan’s glittering LA Galaxy are off on their end-of-season holidays, the unfashionable men from the High Rockies are taking aim at their second North American crown in the space of four years.
“We’re a family,” Salt Lake’s captain and USA international midfielder Kyle Beckerman told FIFA.com. “Players, coaches, everyone – we look out for each other. It’s been that way since 2008. Up until then the club was at the bottom of the table every year and the mentality needed to change.”
And change it did with the arrival of Beckerman, a journeyman holding midfielder bouncing from club to club. The move coincided with striker Jason Kreis hanging up his boots to try his luck as RSL coach. A player with only 14 international caps to his name, Kreis was a hero on the pitch for the fledgling club, its first signing in their debut year in 2005, and as coach he became legend. By 2009, he’d delivered an unlikely MLS crown with a blue-collar ethic.
“A lot of people had written us off and given us no chance,” Kreis said of the 2009 side that beat much fancied LA Galaxy on penalties in the one-off MLS Cup decider. “When I took over we had a clear plan of how we were going to build and that title proved we were doing things right.”
Kreis, 40, will say it until he’s blue in the face when asked about his team’s decided lack of so-called star power: “In Salt Lake, the team is the star.”
It’s a hard point to argue. Since the team’s 2009 heroics, they’ve reached the post-season play-offs every season. And despite losing top players like Will Johnson, Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola at the start of the current campaign, they found a way past Portland Timbers and the Galaxy to reach their second MLS Cup in four years.
The heart of the team remained from 2009 and through that solid core, Kreis was able to get his message across. “Jason [Kreis] changed things totally when he came. He turned everything around,” added Beckerman, who skippers a side firm with 2009 title-winners like goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defensive stalwart Nat Borchers, and Javier Morales as the midfield metronome and pass-master. “The mindset was clear from the start: you fight for the guy next to you. If you do that, you’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
While Real are considered outsiders on the road ahead of the clash with Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, only a fool would think they won’t put in a dogged fight. “Working hard and pulling for our team-mates, this is all just part of our identity as a club and a team,” said Beckerman, whose recent improvement with RSL led to a revival for the US national team, where he’s lined up in Brazil 2014 qualifying and helped win last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
US coach Jurgen Klinsmann likes what he sees in the tough-tackling midfielder too, and no one would be surprised if Beckerman’s name is on the list for next year’s FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil.
“Like all the guys in the team, you know what you’re going to get with me as a player,” the dreadlocked Beckerman, 31, went on, humble in describing his recent ascent for club and country. “I pride myself on it. I give everything I have and I think with Salt Lake this kind of mentality is contagious.”
Hungry for success, teeming with players willing to put in the dirty work, Real Salt Lake are underdogs with sharper teeth than most. “We’re extremely comfortable as underdogs,” was Kreis’s assessment of the run to glory back in '09, and it should stand as a warning to Kansas City's players and fans. “We’re happy to let teams write us off.”