There are moments in sporting history that, in the immediate aftermath, can galvanise a fan base more than any win could dream to. There are millions of words dedicated to the most famous of these moments, from the 1982 college game that birthed “The Play” to the 2009 Ireland vs. France World Cup Qualifier, that debate the impact on the game these moments have and I’m sure there will be a few hundred written in the next few weeks over a play in the 89th minute of RSL vs. SKC that has changed the direction of the playoffs for many teams.
Of course, I’m talking about the handball by Justen Glad to deny Kansas an opportunity to go 1-0 up on Decision Day, costing them the Western Conference, a spot in the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League and a first round bye in the 2021 MLS Playoffs. It also kept LA Galaxy out of the MLS Playoffs, which Peter Vermes has sought to highlight in the hours after the game.
Popular opinion in the coming days will characterise SKC as the neutrals favourite, a team unjustly denied their moment who everyone wants to see win. That same opinion will cast Real Salt Lake as the bullies on the playground, cheating their way into the post-season and costing an MLS institute like LA Galaxy their moment as well. They are entitled to do so! What will go unmentioned is the effect that moments like this have on the fanbase, a fanbase that has not had a lot to cheer about over the last few seasons.
This game, this moment, will re-energise our fans going into the Seattle game like no scoreline could have done. We could have put 6 past Kansas and it would have simply been a surprise. But to sh*thouse your way into a 95th minute win against your fiercest rivals on the final day of the season, costing them and one of your other rivals something valuable while giving yourself something that seemed out of reach at one point? There’s not one RSL fan that will be humble about this, and nor should we be. We weren’t humbled when Adrian Heath turned on 20 year old David Ochoa for kicking a football into the crowd (something that while the whole league loved, I imagine will be use to retrospectively prove RSL were ‘The Bad Guys’ all along) and we shouldn’t be now.
Make no mistake, if this was the other way around, Kansas would be dancing in the street right now. Peter Vermes wouldn’t be pleading with us to think about poor little LA Galaxy. Benny Feilhaber would have his U-17 squad re-enacting that moment over and over again (I assume his training sessions start an end with Powerpoint presentations about how RSL is the enemy and that everytime he closes his eyes he’s haunted by the image of Nat Borchers screaming at him).
Yes, it was handball. We were on the winning end of some incredibly poor officiating, but the key is we were on the winning end. Real Salt Lake has taken it’s fair share of licks over the last few years both on the field and off. Fans have had so little to cheer for, so few games where the ticket price was worth the experience, more dark clouds than sunny days. It’s hard to be an RSL fan right now so I’ll take this all day and feel no shame for it. It’s out turn to get some good luck, something to sing about, and having taken so much bad in the last few years that this moment should give the fans every reason to back the team when the onslaught from fans and media alike.
When Eric Cantona delivered a flying kick in 1995 to a fan who racially abused him, everyone lined up to say how football died that night. I remember how much TV time was dedicated to dragging him over the coals or calling for him to be banned for life. The only people that weren’t were Manchester United fans. Because they backed their player, even if he did commit an actual assault on Wednesday Night Football, the fans rallied around both him and the club as they defiantly wore the mantle of ‘The Bad Guys’. When Martin Keown clattered Ruud van Nistelrooy in the back of the head during a tense Arsenal/Man U game, every Arsenal fan worldwide celebrated their player sticking it to their rivals. Anybody remember Adebayor sprinting the length of the pitch to mock Arsenal fans?
These things go in circles and before the end of the Playoffs I’m sure there will be something that will have washed away this moment. I will forever maintain they are what makes the game great. It brings out the passion in fans, either for or against the team, and creates interest in the game that a sterile environment just can’t. I’ve said before, football creates the best stories and Real Salt Lake have told the first chapter of this one against SKC, which takes us beautifully onto Seattle (a team that SKC themselves created controversy with after Tim Melia executed one of the best Rock Bottoms in sporting history) and hopefully then onto a return match against SKC themselves. You couldn’t write a more compelling story than this! MLS needs RSL and SKC to get through their next games.
Every story needs a ‘Bad Guy’ and if it has to be us, then we should enjoy it while we can, because next time it might be us on the wrong side of the call.