Soccer

Real Salt Lake blazes trail that TFC would like to follow

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The Canadian Press
3/27/2014 6:16:45 PM
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TORONTO -- In playing Real Salt Lake this weekend, Toronto FC is taking on the kind of team it aspires to be -- a perennial playoff side with a winning tradition and championship character.

Now in its 10th season, Real Salt Lake has made the playoffs the last six years, winning the MLS Cup in 2009.

Until overtaken in the MLS record books early last year, Real Salt Lake held the league mark for consecutive home wins at 29. Rio Tinto Stadium was an impregnable fortress from June 2009 to May 2011.

Toronto (2-0-0 this season) has a 1-5-0 lifetime record in Sandy, Utah.

RSL (1-0-2 this season) was also the first MLS team to reach the CONCACAF Champions League final, losing to Monterrey 3-2 on aggregate in 2011.

Last season Real Salt Lake made it to two finals but lost both: beaten in the MLS Cup by Sporting Kansas City in an agonizing penalty shootout and 1-0 by D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup.

There has been stability on the sidelines with Jeff Cassar, who has been with the team since May 2007, moving up the ladder to head coach last December after Jason Kreis became the first head coach of New York City FC.

Cassar is the third head coach in RSL history. Toronto was on coach No. 5 in Year 4 and is currently on its eighth manager in Ryan Nelsen.

RSL captain Kyle Beckerman arrived in 2007 in a trade from the Colorado Rapids.

The midfielder with the distinctive dreadlocks credits coaching and a little luck for the franchise's success.

"We were able to get players into this team that were ready to be coached by a coach like Jason and Jeff Cassar and Robin Fraser (a former RSL assistant coach who is now with the New York Red Bulls)," he said Thursday.

"It just so happened that we were able to get a group of guys together that ... really just needed a good environment -- an ownership that cared, a coaching staff that did the right thing. A lot of the guys were coming from places that didn't do the game right.

"A lot of us, that core group that's still here, it was a breath of fresh air that we really needed. And we just took full advantage because we knew exactly the opportunity that was in front of us, because we'd had it the opposite way, where the owner doesn't care or the coach just doesn't get it.

"So I think we lucked out a little bit that we had the core in the same place, here in Salt Lake, that was just absolutely ready to explode and take full advantage of what was in front of us. And that's what we did."

The 31-year-old Beckerman is joined on the team by fellow U.S. internationals Nick Rimando (a goalie who came on board in 2007) and Luis Gil (a midfielder who joined in 2010).

Other veterans include defenders Nat Borchers (2008) and Chris Wingert (2007), midfielders Ned Grabavoy (2009) and Javier Morales (2007) and forwards Robbie Findley (two stints since 2007) and Alvaro Saborio (2010).

Players want to come to winning clubs. And RSL does a good job checking out new talent.

"They want to bring in not only good players but good people," said Beckerman.

Toronto FC has followed the same road this off-season, with marquee signings Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, Gilberto and Julio Cesar all fitting in.

Beckerman acknowledges that he respects Toronto's search for success.

"The thing that I really admire about Toronto is that they won't stop. They've kept at it. They've kept trying to fix and get the right recipe. And it doesn't seem like they're going to stop any time soon. They're going to keep going and keep spending until they get the right recipe.

"And I admire that. That's something a lot of other teams would love to have that. With the fan base, they've been loyal there and they've stuck with them through tough times. The ownership and what they're doing there, is kind of a reward to that loyalty and giving them a successful team.

"Time will tell if this is the right one. But it seems so far that they've brought in the right players so far. So I think it's definitely on the up and up over there."

Like Toronto, the early days were bleak in Salt Lake. The team went 5-22-5 with just 20 points in its inaugural season in 2005.

In 2005-06, the fledgling franchise endured a league-record 18-game winless streak.

But it didn't take long for Real Salt Lake to turn the corner. It had 39 points in Season 2 and 40 in Season 4, going 10-10-10 and reaching the 2008 playoff semifinals.

In 2009, it was another 40-point season and the 11-12-7 team went on to win the title.

Since then, RSL has collected 56, 53, 57 and 56 points.

In contrast, Toronto's points total since entering the league in 2007 is 25, 35, 39, 35, 33, 23, and 29.

The two teams meet Saturday.

Toronto FC Celebrates (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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