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RSL History: The five biggest matches (so far)

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In Real Salt Lake’s still-short history, they’ve played in a handful of huge matches. Here are the five biggest.

MLS Cup - Los Angeles Galaxy v Real Salt Lake Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

5. Real Salt Lake vs. Saprissa, March 15 and April 5, 2011

CONCACAF Champions League semifinal

Of all our big matches, this might be the one that’s most readily forgotten — I mean, that’s why it’s at the end of the list, of course, but it’s important to underscore exactly how important this one was. Saprissa was a substantial opponent, and through our first CONCACAF Champions League matches in 2011, it’s fair to say we weren’t really tested — we had two matches against Columbus Crew, and we beat them 4-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Saprissa changed that, and we ran out 2-0 winners at home. And who opened the scoring? Alvaro Saborio against his old club. On the road, we scraped out a narrow 2-1 loss, and that was enough to send us through. We can never forget that Jamison Olave goal that sent us through in that leg — it’s one of the best goals we’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing for Real Salt Lake.

Saborio opens the scoring against his old club

4. Real Salt Lake vs. D.C. United, US Open Cup Final, 2013

This is probably the big match we want to forget the most. The 2013 MLS Cup? Yeah, we should have won, but those were tough conditions against a (sigh) really good team. The 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final? That was a huge game against a huge opponent. This one? D.C. United was the worst team in the league. They ended as the worst team in the league. They were amazingly bad.

And we lost.

This was a disappointing one — but it was still one of our biggest matches.

3. Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake, Dec. 7, 2013

MLS Cup Final

December 7, 2013 will be seared in my memory like few things ever could be. It was the biggest match Real Salt Lake had seen since facing Monterrey in the Champions League final, and it was also perhaps the most painful of these five. Why, though?

Well, facing Monterrey in a final was always going to be a challenge. Losing to D.C. United, we had nobody to blame for our performance but ourselves. But this one? This one went through ten rounds of penalties. The highs were blissfully high; the lows were excruciatingly low. When Sebastian Velasquez missed a penalty and the traveling RSL contingent raised their voices in support, not condemnation, we knew we could run out as champions.

We didn’t.

That Real Salt Lake has two matches bigger than this one is a testament to the highs we’ve seen as a club in our short time in the league. Sure, we should have won it. Sure, it was painful. And sure, I’d rather not think about it, and I still haven’t watched the highlights from that match. (And I’m still not going to. If that’s the wrong video above, tell me in the comments.)

But you know what? This one was huge.

2. Real Salt Lake vs. LA Galaxy, November 22, 2009

MLS Cup Final, 2009

Can you imagine Real Salt Lake today if we hadn’t won the 2009 MLS Cup? Jason Kreis was taking a lot of heat from fans, and this is what really got everyone on his side. We went in as underdogs — LA Galaxy, with David Beckham and Landon Donovan and all that — and we walked out of neutral-site Seattle as champions.

We’d done it all. Some might have said we didn’t deserve it — that’s always going to happen when a team plays defensively and scraps for a win, isn’t it? — but it turned us from a simple expansion side into a well-regarded MLS team. Of course, what came next played a big role, too.

1. Real Salt Lake vs. Monterrey, April 20 & 27, 2011

CONCACAF Champions League final

It was a minor miracle that Real Salt Lake managed a draw against Monterrey in Mexico on April 20, 2011, and it made for an amazing homecoming a week later. When we could easily have been blown out like so many MLS clubs have been since, we persevered and looked like near-equals — or at least scrappy underdogs who could more than keep up.

Our homecoming was greeted with the fervor of spirit that it deserved, and even though it ended poorly, and even though we were on the cusp of continental greatness, we held our heads high by competing, not just appearing, with the best of the best.

If Real Salt Lake gets back to the CONCACAF Champions League final, those two nights in 2011 won’t be surpassed. This match signaled a bright, new future for Real Salt Lake, and it’s one we can still reach.