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SALT LAKE CITY -- For the first time in decades, Utah has a professional sports champion. When Real Salt Lake knocked off the L.A. Galaxy Sunday night, they undoubtedly sold some tickets for next year.
The championship ended tied 1-1 after regulation and overtime period, which led to the shootout. Robbie Russell scored in the seventh round of penalty kicks as RSL beat the star-studded Galaxy Sunday night for its first MLS title.
Fans greet the team at Salt Lake International
Some fans who went to the game in Seattle drove all night to welcome the team home at Salt Lake International Airport Monday afternoon. They wouldn't miss any of the championship festivities.
"I think it's awesome," one fan said. "They did great. We were up in Seattle. We saw the game. It was great!"
"Oh, it's great. It's wonderful. I'm speechless," said RSL fan Jesse Henderson. "My heart's still pounding after last night. I just think it's great."
"It's awesome! It ruled!" another fan said. "I don't have much of voice left anymore, but it was a lot of fun!"
When the team arrived, the terminal erupted with the cheers of hundreds of fans, which surprised most of the athletes.
When midfielder Will Johnson was asked if he was expecting that large of a crowd, he said, "No. No chance. That was an awesome surprise."
Forward Robbie Findley said, "I thought there would be some people here, but not like this."
"This is awesome! We should do this every year! This is so much fun!" Team Capt. Kyle Beckerman said. "These fans, they stuck with this team through when the team wasn't doing very well."
"Incredible! Man, what an outpouring of support -- so genuine," RSL General Manager Garth Lagerwey told KSL News, "It brings tears to my eyes. It's so amazing!"
"It's great! Salt Lake's got the best fans! Salt Lake's got amazing fans!" defensive midfielder Robbie Russell said.
Utah youth look up to RSL athletes
RSL has legions of fans, many among young local soccer players. One Salt Lake County youth teamed showed extra pep in practice Monday. The 10- and 11-year-olds of team Ajax felt inspired by their favorite pros. They all watched the game Sunday night and aspire to keep playing at a higher level.
|3 p.m.||Declaration at the Capitol (south steps) SPEAKERS: Gov. Gary Herbert, Dave Checketts, Jason Kreis, Kyle Beckerman|
|3:30p.m.||Motorcade from Capitol down State Street to Rio Tinto Stadium|
|5:00 p.m.||Gates open to stadium; player families invited to private reception in 2nd floor Club Real|
|5:30 p.m.||Festivities start time|
|5:45 p.m.||Actual start time (can be flexible if crowd is still pouring in)|
Jim Sciumbato, the owner of Soccer Plus, saw a bump in soccer interest when Real first arrived. He expects to see another surge.
"Now that we have a championship-caliber team, we should see even more people saying: ‘Hey, I want to play soccer. I want to participate in soccer. I want to go to the games,'" Sciumbato said.
The regional director of the American Youth Soccer Organization says Utah already boasts more soccer players per capita than any other state.
"We've got a great fan base here in Utah, but I think the more exposure we get to this beautiful game of soccer, the better it is," director Eileen Tabert said.
Future of Salt Lake soccer complex
This is a crowning achievement for soccer in Utah, and there's more in the works -- including the planned sports complex near the airport.
"Youth soccer is growing in Utah, and there is an incredible need for field space," Tabert said.
She said getting field time for practice remains a challenge for many teams across the region. But Salt Lake City appears ready to move ahead with its long-delayed regional sports complex on the banks of the Jordan River near Rose Park.
Two months ago, the city council pledged a half million dollars to buy 160 acres of state land for the complex that would include more than a dozen soccer fields. Real owner Dave Checketts pledged that the team would give $7.5 million for the project, but the offer expires next year.
Parents at the homecoming said it's time to start building.
"I think they need to get busy," Jen Schlenker said. "We've got a lot of future soccer players out there, and I think they need to get busy."
Construction could begin next spring.
As for the championship team, RSL plans to celebrate their win with the public Tuesday night at 5:45 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
Story compiled with contributions from Jed Boal, John Hollenhorst and Paul Nelson.