SEATTLE — Confetti floats down to the CenturyLink Field turf as the winners lift the MLS Cup in triumph.
Championship dreams for Sounders FC were a reality for Real Salt Lake in 2009 after a stunning upset of the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy — and it happened in Seattle.
“That,” said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey, “is the place that got it all started.”
Since its title-winning run three years ago, Salt Lake has become one of the league’s models of consistency as it faces the Sounders in the Western Conference semifinals for the second season in a row.
The team has made five straight playoff appearances, the longest active streak in MLS. Coaches and executives credit much of that success to keeping its core group of players together from season to season.
To what extent? Well, nine regular starters on the current RSL team — nearly its entire starting lineup — played in that 2009 MLS Cup final.
“One of our founding philosophies from 2008, when we rebuilt the team, was to try and develop a core of players and keep them together on a consistent basis for a long time,” said coach Jason Kreis, who was one of the MLS greats as a player.
“I’ve looked at the truly successful clubs in our league over the past 17-some years and I think one thing rings true with all of them: It’s that they stayed together for a while. It’s not been an easy thing to do, but it’s something we truly believe in, and we think we’ve reaped some benefits because of that with a team that’s been successful consistently.”
The league’s salary cap has been the biggest obstacle in keeping the team together.
Success often correlates with players deserving greater compensation, for starters. MLS rules also stipulate that teams that miss the playoffs get more allocation money, which can be used in multiple ways, including spending in excess of the salary cap.
Kreis, whose 108 goals as a player rank fifth all-time, said the challenges are “more and more straining with every passing year.”
Added Lagerwey: “When you start living in this world of having kind of no reserve and no extra (money), you have to make some very tough choices on an annual basis as to who comes back.”
The reason for this ingrained commitment to keeping a core together, Lagerwey said, comes down to the team’s style of play.
Led by captain Kyle Beckerman, Real Salt Lake plays a formation with four midfielders in a compact diamond, which lends itself to a lot of short passing and an emphasis on maintaining possession.
“When you’re talking about guys passing the ball around, they have to know where their teammates are going to be,” said Lagerwey, a former MLS goalkeeper, “and if you’re constantly introducing rashes of new players, it makes it much more challenging.”
Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid noted that RSL’s midfield has about as many years of experience together as Seattle’s midfield has games together.
“It makes them tough, it makes them a team you have to work hard against, but it certainly doesn’t make them unbeatable,” Schmid said.
Many around the league have started to wonder if the window is closing for this group of RSL players. Schmid, Sounders FC midfielder Brad Evans and broadcaster Kasey Keller are among those who have recently suggested as much.
Lagerwey’s response was to look at franchise records in points (57), wins (17), and goals (46) — all earned this season. He also noted it ultimately comes to performance and shared a popular saying around the team: “The players always make these decisions.”
Kreis said he doesn’t agree with the premise at all.
“Now is not the time to talk about the window closing,” he said. “For me, the window is wide open. We’ve got a playoff run in front of us with a terrific opportunity for this group of players to win something right now and right here.”
• Kickoff for Thursday’s playoff game has been changed to 7 p.m., a half-hour later than originally scheduled. The NBC Sports Network will televise the local broadcast of the game nationally.
The game will be aired on KONG locally and on ROOT Sports in Eastern Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.