2014 has been a huge year for the league and the beautiful sport alike. At the World Cup, we saw the unimaginable, with huge names in the soccer world like Spain, Portugal, and England all bowing out in the group stage. We also witnessed a resurging U.S. team and the magnificent run of Costa Rica. In other words, it was CONCACAF's coming out party. Closer to home we witnessed the growth of the sport at home signing new television deals and unveiling a new logo before what will be a defining 2015 season - headlined with names like Kaka and David Villa. At the same time, we also saw Real Salt Lake's sister 2005 expansion team whither and finally die.
The 2014 season has been a roller coaster for Real Salt Lake with amazing ups and tremendous downs. Ironically, the Los Angeles Galaxy were somehow involved in both. We witnessed RSL tie the league record of 13 matches unbeaten to start the season - tallied by the 1998 Galaxy team. We also witnessed the demolishing of RSL by a confident LA Galaxy team to end RSL's season.
We bore witness to the birth of a rising star in Joao Plata - even tallying his first national team minutes with his native Ecuador since 2011. Similarly, we saw an aging veteran and our captain, our rock, Kyle Beckerman make a name for himself on the world stage with outstanding and steadfast performances. We also came to the realization, sadly, that RSL's core is aging, and it will not sustain the club forever. Just like the league, we have both lived vicariously through the good and bore witness to the bad as fans of Real Salt Lake.
The Claret-and-Cobalt ended the year with 56 points and a +15 goal differential. Spurred by 15 wins, RSL managed to make their seventh consecutive post season appearance - the longest living record in the league. Just as impressive, this was accomplished by a first year coach Jeff Cassar after longtime RSL man Jason Kreis moved on to the Big Apple - a face we will be seeing again next year.
This success is nothing new for RSL. Real Salt Lake's consistence has been unreal since their 2009 Cinderella run to capture the MLS Cup. For the fifth consecutive season, RSL has managed to secure over 50 points and at least 15 wins in a season.
For the first time in a long time, the winds of change might be blowing in the Wasatch Valley this offseason, but before we look to the future, let's look at the success of this year.
Real Salt Lake is known league-wide for their "The Team is The Star" mantra. RSL has consistently managed to build and field a successful team by balancing financial management, roster-building, and faithful adherence to the 4-4-2 diamond. Speaking of diamonds, RSL has continued to produce youth players - like Carlos Salcedo - and sign players on the out - like Joao Plata - that have been polished by the Claret-and-Cobalt into diamonds themselves.
A team cannot be either an offensive terror or a defensive juggernaut without some skill at the other end of the pitch. If a team to be successful, it cannot just be an attacking corps or a defensive line, a mentality RSL has embraced over the years.
This year's success is derived from skill at both ends of the pitch. Goals came from 13 players throughout the year. With striker Joao Plata leading the charge, defenders such as Salcedo and Nat Borchers also contributed by knocking balls past the opposing goalkeepers. At the same time, the entire team contributed to ten clean-sheets on the year - helping Nick Rimando achieve a league leading 115 shutout record.
The Claret-and-Cobalt has used their style of play to remain competitive in a changing league. Being a small market team in Major League Soccer has forced RSL to become creative in their team-building instead of relying on big names and shiny stars found in the ranks of Seattle and LA.
As such, no one is going to confuse Salt Lake City for being a major media market, but small market teams continue to lead the way in MLS - the success of RSL, Kanas City, and Columbus are key examples. Real Salt Lake is known to play beautiful soccer in a spectacular stadium that is usually filled to capacity. For right now, this suits RSL just fine. The club is profitable and they can spend smartly, focusing on team infrastructure and building up their academy without neglecting the first team.
Still, if the MLS is going to reach the levels it aspires to in 2020, it's worth wondering if RSL and other small market teams will get left behind. As MLS strives to become one of the most competitive leagues in the world many questions concerning small market teams will continue to swirl and will eventually have to be answered.
For now, RSL moves into the sunset of the 2014 season and towards the dawn of the 2015 season. As players and fans alike, we need not forget what has created us thus far. We on the Wasatch Front have embraced the beautiful game and it is here to stay. Like the mountains encompassing our valley, Real Salt Lake will continue to climb and reach new heights in what can only be a bright future.
What do you think RSL can learn from the past as they move forward? Is consistency a sign of success or is it the trophies in the case that determines success? What do you think? Share your opinions in the comments section below.