Positives abound but more improvement is needed
A year ago, Real Salt Lake was licking its wounds from the team's inaugural season; the expansion squad finished in fifth place in the Western Conference. Team administration promised things would be different this season.
The only team to finish below Salt Lake in the league standings last year, fellow expansion rival Club Deportivo Chivas USA, also vowed change. Chivas USA hired Bob Bradley as its third coach in its short history (after going through two coaches last year). Bradley massively overhauled the squad and secured a playoff spot this year.
Salt Lake's makeover wasn't as drastic, though the team unloaded underachieving star Clint Mathis to the Colorado Rapids. John Ellinger stayed on as coach of RSL, even as the team lurched to a record poor start, securing only one point out of a possible 18 in the first six games of the season.
"We shot ourselves in the foot," admitted veteran defender Eddie Pope. "I think there were times that we shouldn't have let last year's attitude and tendencies to spill over into our season. And we did that. In the end, that hurt us more than anything else."
It seemed as if Salt Lake was set on self-destruct, with the flames of the disastrous season also threatening to burn down the most concrete prize for a Major League Soccer team, the approval of its own stadium. At one point, owner-operator Dave Checketts threatened to move Real to another city.
Improbably and unexpectedly, the team then began to win games. Real closed to within striking distance of the playoffs, with new acquisition Jeff Cunningham leading the league in goals.
Ultimately, it was too little, too late, as other Western Conference teams stayed out of reach of Salt Lake. The team's final game of the year seemed like a microcosm of the season. With nothing to play for but pride, Real still battled its playoff-bound hosts, Chivas USA. Unfortunately, Real again missed sharpness and bite until the opposition scored. Then the switch turned to the "on" position. The midfield and defensive effort jelled, leaving Chivas USA frustrated and with few chances.
The offense still struggled, though, to create and put away any clear chances. The inclusion of Jafet Soto put fresh legs into the attack. The Costa Rican nailed the one opportunity that came his way in the 89th minute with a flourish, unleashing a half-bicycle to propel the ball into the goal.
"The guys never gave up," coach John Ellinger said. "They fought. It's good. There was a lot of pride and professionalism out there."
Soto's effort salvaged an improbable tie, leaving team members pleased with their effort, not only in the final game but also for the season.
"This team really turned things around," Soto said. "We're paying for starting things off badly. Those points that we let get away cost us and left us outside of the playoffs. But we did an incredible job to come back and come so close to qualifying."
The problem is, though, that draws are not victories, and progress is subjective. In concrete terms, such as the playoff race, Real Salt Lake ended up no further along than it was last year. The moral triumph of improvement in games won is ultimately a hollow one. Acceptance of the season as anything else is a sure path to the continuance of more of the same.
That's the road that Real Salt Lake is treading, however.
"I think there's no major overhaul that needs to be done here," coach John Ellinger declared. "Just like any other team, we're looking to get a little bit better, add little more depth."
Ellinger seemed to regard the team's poor performance at the start of the season as mostly a fluke.
"For the most part, the progression this year was good," Ellinger said. "It can't get any worse than how we started the first six games. Hopefully, that doesn't happen again."
It's going to take more than wishful thinking to get Real Salt Lake in gear from the start of the season, though. The most frustrating part of watching the squad this year was seeing glimpses of what Real was capable of.
"In the second half of the season, we played very well," Pope said. "We got points. We won difficult games. We came back [from goals down], I don't know how many times to win games."
While the never-say-die attitude of RSL was commendable, the fact that it seemingly played better from behind also highlighted a strange lapse in focus.
"We can defend better," Ellinger said of the progress the team needs to make. "We're giving up the first goal a lot of times."
Pope was befuddled.
"This year, our thing became giving up early goals," he said. "We almost got to the point to where we were thinking that we should just start kicking in the back of our net, because then we'd start playing. It was almost like we had to prove something to ourselves. I think that will be looked at in the offseason. It's something that we obviously need to fix, because you're making it difficult on yourself."
The unpredictability of RSL's play left opponents wondering what to expect.
"Real Salt Lake looked dangerous at the end of the season," said Tom Payne, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy. "Other teams in the West are glad they're out of the playoffs."
RSL didn't view 2006 negatively, especially when compared to the fiasco of its inaugural season. "We've got to look at the positives," Ellinger said. He cited specifics: "We were 0-10-2 against Eastern teams last year, and this year we're 5-3-4 or something like that. I don't feel bad at all, actually."
With the support of RSL administration, Ellinger is likely to stay the course with his approach. Slight tweaks in the offseason, he indicated, could include another proven goal scorer to pair with Cunningham.
"Now is the time to let the end of this season go into next season," Pope said. "You keep rolling and keep growing and keep going and building on the good habits that you've had to get a good start on the new season. That will be crucial for this team."
Despite the late run, RSL's placement in 2006 was actually worse than last year in terms of the standings. "We're last in the Western Conference," Ellinger conceded.
In terms of what the team could have and should have done to remedy that result, Ellinger said, "We should have done a little better against Colorado when we had the opportunity at home."
The Rapids, RSL's regional rival, secured the final spot in the Western playoffs, thanks in part to winning the final match between the two teams on the road in Salt Lake. More surprising was that Chivas USA, dead last in the league last year, leapfrogged RSL, the Galaxy and the Rapids to finish third in the West. Credit the Chivas administration for its willingness to make the moves to put the team in a position to contend for a championship.
"Chivas got a lot better, we got better, and other teams in the conference had to play better," Ellinger explained. The difference between "better" and "a lot better" was a playoff spot this time around.
If RSL is content with plucky progress, it may be a while before that translates into trophies. Yet perhaps accentuating the positive will help eliminate the negative.
"They had a great turnaround," Ellinger said. "We can be proud of that, and be a good team and ... look forward from this point on to next year."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.