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Real Salt Lake's Consistency Comes Full Circle in Columbus

Salt Lake has been the model franchise in MLS the last few years after taking the top spot from the Crew.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The 2009 MLS Playoffs, that's where it all began. MLS' Utah franchise, Real Salt Lake, waltzed into Columbus and took down the defending MLS Cup champions by a 4-2 aggregate score.

After a 1-0 road loss in the first leg, the Supporter's Shield winners Columbus Crew were confident they could respond in leg two. The upstart Salt Lake, who began operation just four years previous, came back from 2-0 down in the game to win the series and upset the repeat hopes of the Black and Gold.

RSL went on to beat the Chicago Fire and the Los Angeles Galaxy in penalty kicks to claim their first MLS Cup title. Since that point, Real has made the playoffs every year, including another MLS Cup Final appearance, and has not concluded a season with fewer than 53 points - their previous best was 40.

It has been nothing but consistency for Salt Lake since that fateful day.

"They've set the bar for the league as far as consistency for the last few years," Crew defender and captain Michael Parkhurst said of RSL.

"They're what everybody's striving to be, I think them and [Sporting Kansas City] maybe. Year in and year out, there always at the top."

In a league with so much turnover, it is hard to stay consistent, but Real has found a way.

"There's a couple of things," Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter said when asked how Salt Lake has maintained their success.

"The first thing is, they have a core group of players that has by in large stuck together."

From the 2009 team that defeated the Crew, eight players still remain. Key players, such as Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Chris Wingert have retained that core in which Berhalter speaks.

"They have a system that they play, which hasn't changed much," he went on. "And they have a consistent coaching staff. Even with [Jason Kreis] gone, [Jeff Cassar] has been around that organization for a long time."

Kreis became the first player in Real history when he was traded from the Dallas Burn. He took over as head coach when he retired in 2007 and led Salt Lake to all of their success. After 2013, Kreis left RSL to become the head coach of New York City F.C. and Cassar, a teammate of Kreis' in Dallas and his assistant in Salt Lake, took over.

Cassar has kept things going in the same direction and the success has continued. Until last week, Real was the only remaining undefeated team in MLS.

RSL knocked off the top dog in 2009. Now, five years later, the Crew attempt to do the same thing. Even though this is not the playoffs, Columbus are looking at Salt Lake as the franchise they would like to be.

Real plays a possession dominant game, where they look to get forward and play a good brand of soccer. No matter who they play or where the game is, they play the same style and consistently get results.

This is what Berahlter wants for the Crew.

Parkhurst points out they still have a ways to go to be as steady as RSL, but they feel they can compete with last year's MLS Cup runners up.

"We've got some work to do before we're at that level," he said this week. "On a game-by-game basis, we feel like we can beat them."

As the Salt Lake players walk onto the field at Columbus Crew Stadium on Wednesday night, many of the players may look back and remember that this is where it all began.

This Black and Gold team will be looking to give them new, not so fond, memories of their home stadium.