Real Salt Lake embracing overlooked role

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SEATTLE (AP) -- Nick Rimando just finished rattling off all the players and qualities that make Los Angeles such a difficult opponent for Real Salt Lake in Sunday's MLS Cup final.

Then Kyle Beckerman spoke and in three sentences summed up the position of a team that understands it's being overlooked in favor of the big names that accompany the Galaxy.

"We came here to win. We think we can win. We don't really care who we're playing, who's on the other team," Beckerman said on Friday.

The names of David Beckham, Landon Donovan, coach Bruce Arena and the general star power that comes with the Galaxy is dominating the attention ahead of Sunday's championship match. And it's important for the league to have its marquee team playing in its title game.

But how these underdogs from Real Salt Lake got to the finals might bring a more compelling story. And the role of overlooked upstarts is one they are fully embracing.

"Every finals you're going to have a top favorite and everyone else is the underdog," RSL midfielder Andy Williams said. "But we're relishing that role and we'll take it in stride."

That these players find themselves playing for the league title two years after a major organizational overhaul required a remarkable confluence of dramatics on the final weekend of the season that saw RSL slip into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.

Real routed Colorado 3-0 to knock the Rapids from the playoffs, but still needed help a time zone away in Kansas City to head to the postseason for a second straight year. They got that assistance when Kansas City scored a penalty kick goal in extra time for a 2-2 tie with D.C. United that eliminated United from the playoff picture and clinched RSL's spot.

That fortunate bounce only started RSL on its postseason run. They eliminated the 2009 Supporters Shield winners from Columbus in the first-round, picking up a stunning 3-2 road win in Columbus after RSL went just 2-12-2 away from home during the regular season.

Then last week, Real fought Chicago for 120 scoreless minutes, then rallied from down 3-1 during penalty kicks to stun the Fire 5-4 and advance to the title game.

"A lot of people had the chance that we had, and we took our chance and the dominos fell into place for us," Williams said. "Once we got in we knew it was a brand new season and that's how we treated it."

Two seasons ago, RSL was still a floundering expansion franchise trying to find its footing in the league. They went 6-15-9 in 2007 and changed coaches early, sending away inaugural coach John Ellinger and asking Jason Kreis, the league's first 100-goal scorer, to retire and become coach.

The transformation to league contender has proved difficult at times. Before the 2008 season, RSL made a massive roster overhaul as Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey tried to reform attitudes in the locker room.

"It was very, very difficult and as everybody knows there was not a lot of success in my first season as coach," Kreis said. "It was very, very difficult I found to change the mentality but raise the average level of player on our team. It meant wholesale changes."

The moves worked. Real now has two straight playoff appearances and can bring the first professional sports championship to Utah since the Utah Stars won the ABA title in 1971, even if very few outside Utah know about Real.

"We understand that they have some big stars on their team and of course the media is going to give them some hype, but that's fine by us," RSL defender Chris Wingert said. "We're happy to be here, and we're worried about winning the game and if we win the game we'll get plenty of love."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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