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Real Monarchs SLC lifting the 2019 USL Championship Trophy
Lucas Muller - RSL Soapbox

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The Road to Louisville: Real Monarchs’ rise from bottom of the table to top of the podium

Real Monarchs have been through a lot in their short history. How did they go from bottom of the league in 2015 to hoisting a trophy in 2019?

Real Monarchs have only existed for five seasons, but in those five seasons, any heartbreak or triumph imaginable has happened to this team.

From experiencing losing seasons, heartbreaking playoff losses, controversial coaching dismissals, to even once having a player in game suffer from a seizure, they have had their share of adversity. This team has also experienced winning the USL Shield, broke the record for most consecutive victories, won their conference, and even now won the league.

With the support of their independent supporters group, the Wasatch Legion, this team has had supporters behind it since day one. From the first game in 2015 where it was cold and rainy, and Justen Glad scored the first home goal to the USL Championship in Louisville, the Wasatch Legion continues to support the Monarchs.

The Wasatch Legion in full force for the Real Monarchs Western Conference Final on Nov. 9, 2019.
Lucas Muller - RSL Soapbox

The Monarchs may have had a supporters group from day one, but it took two full seasons before the team found any success for them to celebrate. The team finished 12th in their inaugural 2015 season and 11th in 2016.

Then 2017 came, a new coach and a revamped roster saw success. The Monarchs won the regular season shield with a 20-7-5 record. This season they broke the record for most consecutive wins in the USL, nine. They were dominant in regular season play, but then, the fairytale was ruined by a first-round exit from the playoffs in a PK shootout versus the Sacramento Republic.

The storyline in 2018 was all too familiar: another home loss in the first round to bow out of the playoffs — this time, a 1-0 loss off a 92nd-minute goal to Reno 1868.

At the end of 2018, the Monarchs had a bitter taste in their mouths they were determined to get rid of in 2019.

”It was almost like there was a new leaf turned over,” Real Monarchs captain Jack Blake said in an interview. “Everyone wanted to concentrate on winning that championship and doing everything possible to do that.”

The 2019 regular season

In the second half of the 2018 season, Real Monarchs were coached by Jamison Olave, following Mark Briggs’ departure from the club. His first stint as head coach wasn’t the greatest, but he did enough to keep the Monarchs in the playoffs, getting the fourth seed. After the season was over though, the Monarchs signed long standing academy coach Martin Vasquez as the new head coach.

Through Vasquez’s first twelve games in charge, it looked like things may not get better for the Monarchs. They had just three wins and found themselves in the bottom half of the table.

In July, due to the less than ideal start to the season, Jamison Olave took over as interim head coach for the second time. The team went on a 4-1-1 run in his first six games. Olave didn’t make major changes, but one choice to switch from fielding two center backs to three proved to be successful in the latter half of the season.

Jamison Olave for Real Monarchs SLC
Lucas Muller - RSL Soapbox

Kalen Ryden, Konrad Plewa, and Erik Holt became mainstays on the backline and further developed the consistency for the Monarchs that propelled them into the playoffs.

Much to the praise of Monarchs’ faithful, this defensive switch-up worked wonders and played a large role in the Monarchs success late in the regular season.

“Jamison Olave’s late-season defensive tactical switch doesn’t get enough credit for the absolute genius it was,” Wasatch Legion member Nic Osterhout said.

With the backline consistent, and with Douglas Martinez and Maikel Chang leading a dominant Monarchs attack, things started to click for Real Monarchs.

In the early stages of 2019, there was a lot of lineup rotation. Between Vasquez trying to figure out what starting 11 worked best, and players constantly moving between Real Salt Lake and Real Monarchs, it was hard to truly develop a system. Come later in 2019, the movement between teams became less frequent and Olave was able to truly develop his team.

“Once we finally solidified a consistent lineup and formation and guys that are going to be brought down [from the first team], we were able to finally find our rhythm,” said rookie center back Erik Holt.

That rhythm came after the Monarchs 2-1 win away at Reno 1868, Blake said. After that the team was performing as one and confident in what they were building.

”No one in the team was an individual,” Blake said. “Everyone was doing everything they could to collectively, as a group, perform. I think when you have that, you can create something really special, and that’s exactly what we did.”

After the big win in Reno, the Monarchs came home to get a 2-0 win over Orange County. They then faced the biggest test of their 2019 regular season: an away match at league-leading Phoenix Rising.

Phoenix Rising saw just one home loss in their entire 2019 campaign. It came on Oct. 12 to Real Monarchs. By a score of 2-1 with goals from Chang and Kyle Coffee at the death, the Monarchs took three points from Phoenix.

Those two wins against Phoenix and Reno pushed the Monarchs into the playoffs on a high. Able to earn the fourth seed in the playoffs, it was now just about belief that the team could go all the way.

“There were no egos on the team; we just played really hard for one another,” Holt said. “As a player, that’s all you want. You want a team that’s going to be bonded and not be selfish. That was the formula for us, for the team to play hard for one another.”

The dedication to each other proved to be just what the team needed. Finishing the season 6-1-1 the Monarchs had momentum on their side come the first round of the playoffs.

The playoffs begin

After a massive 6-2 win over Orange County, the Monarchs had already done more than was ever done before: Made it past the first round of the playoffs.

“Getting that first playoff win at home felt cathartic after the years prior,” Osterhout said.

After getting the comfortable 6-2 win at home, the Monarchs quickly turned their attention to the next game, which meant waiting to see the result of Phoenix Rising against Austin Bold.

The Real Monarchs squad all joined together in an apartment to watch the match on TV. As they watched together and anxiously awaited the outcome, they all had one thought: They wanted to play Phoenix again.

“We all wanted to go for the top dog,” Blake said.

When Phoenix won, the Monarchs knew they got a chance to spoil the party once again and play for the conference championship berth.

“We had full confidence,” Blake said. “We felt in our minds that we would go in there as favorites to win.”

As the Monarchs headed to Phoenix for the rematch, so did the Wasatch Legion. They crammed themselves into a van and made the trek to watch their team mirror their 2-1 performance from earlier in the season.

Back home against El Paso

In beating Phoenix, the Monarchs had exceeded expectations. Now the next challenge was to go back home and play El Paso Locomotive.

This was the first time in club history they were playing for a conference championship, but things got off to a rocky start.

Although back and forth for the majority of the first half, the Monarchs found themselves down at half-time. El Paso defender Andrew Fox found the first goal in the 45th minute.

Real Monarchs own defender, Kalen Ryden, then answered El Paso’s goal with one of his own. Just three minutes after the half started Ryden found the equalizer and the Monarchs were back in it.

It took 72 more minutes of soccer and a red card to El Paso’s James Kiffe to find the winner. The final goal came from yet another defender, rookie center back Erik Holt, who smashed home the game-winner in the 120th minute.

Erik Holt celebrates the winning goal against El Paso with Kalen Ryden
Lucas Muller - RSL Soapbox

”That game itself will go down in history in every Monarchs fan and player’s mind,” Blake said. “Definitely was something that I won’t forget anytime soon.”

In front of over 4,000 home fans that day, the Monarchs lifted the Western Conference Championship trophy — the first playoff trophy in club history.

The final

Heading into the 2019 USL Championship, there were a lot of doubters. No one expected Real Monarchs to have any chance at beating the two-time defending champions, Louisville City FC.

“We just took one step at a time, one game at a time, and focused on ourselves,” Holt said. “We let everyone else do the talking.”

Holt had punched their ticket in Herriman. Now they just had to go to Louisville.

The 2019 USL Championship Final was the first major cup final a Utah soccer team had been in since 2013. That meant all the stops were pulled out, including chartered flights for the team, staff, and even members of the Wasatch Legion.

“The charter flight is still absolutely unbelievable,” Osterhout said. “For the front office to go above and beyond for the supporters like that leaves me absolutely blown away to this day.”

Leading up to kickoff, everything seemed like a fairy tale for the Monarchs. They had turned around their season and found themselves with an opportunity to beat the reigning champions on their home turf, with all their friends, family, and most loyal fans in attendance.

The USL Championship started off similarly to the Monarchs season, disappointing. After conceding just six minutes in, they had a lot of work to bring themselves back into the game.

“Going down a goal for us honestly was probably a good thing,” Holt said.”It gave us a wakeup call, and we started to play from there.”

Once again, the team got back to playing their game. In the 25th minute, Holt found the back of the net for the third time in the playoffs, scoring the equalizer for Real Monarchs.

“I remember talking with my dad before the game, and he said, ‘you always get one chance,’” Holt said. “That was the chance.”

After a world-class goal from Konrad Plewa put the Monarchs ahead, the team’s confidence began to grow. In the 66th minute, Noah Powder found the team’s third and final goal.

”When we scored our goals — especially our third one — when we celebrated with our fans, it felt like we were playing at home,” Blake said.

Lucas Muller - RSL Soapbox

It felt like home again, too, when the Wasatch Legion got to be a part of the trophy celebrations.

“Getting the insane privilege to hoist the trophy myself on the field in Louisville and celebrate with the guys is an all-time favorite life experience that I’ll absolutely cherish until the day I die,” Osterhout said.

Coming home

Although Louisville felt like home with their supporters being there, then the team truly got to come home. Greeted by fans in the airport and a parade in Herriman, the 2019 Real Monarchs team was treated like the champions they were.

”Coming down the stairs at the airport bringing back the trophy, you can’t describe the feeling that we had seeing all those people,” Blake said. “I think everyone had that fairytale feeling, and no one’s going to forget that.”

After ending the season champions, Blake and the rest of his team came home to Salt Lake, but shortly after the Monarchs announced player contract options. A lot of talent has since said goodbye, including key players like Kalen Ryden and Konrad Plewa.

”I think that we had some extremely good players last year, very good friends of mine personally, and it’s sad to see them leave,” Blake said. “But at the same time, we’re excited about the players that we’ve brought in, and I’m looking forward to getting to work and starting the season off strong.”

The Real Monarchs intend to defend their throne in 2020 and once again be a dominant force in the USL Championship, regardless of talent lost.

The Wasatch Legion, too, has big hopes for 2020. Although focusing on heckling away teams and making tifos, the Legion wants everyone to know they’re there.

“If you love the Monarchs, you’re in,” Osterhout said. “It wasn’t so long ago our group was maybe 4-6 people standing in the rain at Rio Tinto. Now we have our own little community of amazing people from all walks of life who come together to support the guys. All are welcome. Come hang out and let’s get to know each other.”

The Wasatch Legion is ready for 2020, the team with both old and new faces is ready, now the season just has to get started.

Real Monarchs start their 2020 campaign against rival Phoenix Rising FC: The team they got the better out of in 2019 will be a big test to start off 2020.

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