The skeptics who once doubted major league soccer could thrive in Utah are now drowned out by the roars of fans ready to celebrate another championship by Real Salt Lake.
Of course, the squad will have to make it past a team from Kansas City to claim its second Major League Soccer Cup in five years. But win or lose, the RSL franchise already has done its fans proud and proven that a sport beloved around the world can generate in Utah the same kind of loyalty bordering on fanaticism as it does in places like Liverpool, Madrid or Rio de Janiero.
To get to the season finale on Dec. 7, Real’s squad of savvy veterans and emerging new talent vanquished the top-seeded Portland Timbers in a two-match display of focus, confidence and strategic mastery. The Portland fans were no doubt disappointed by the outcome, but continued throughout the final match to chant their team’s fight song in a show of enthusiasm even the loudest NFL arenas don’t often exceed.
The same exuberance over the years has been displayed by sold-out RSL crowds chanting fight songs and anthems, which include a song from a few years ago that begins with the lyrics, “We are fighting as the mighty Real; we came together if you’re wondering how .”
Yes, there are those who might well be wondering how this came together – a franchise that started with shaky expectations but has since given the world’s most popular sport a firm foothold in the Rocky Mountains.
Utah is, in many ways, a natural place to promote soccer, which is known in many other nations as football. Not only is there a large and growing Hispanic population here that appreciates the sport, the area also is home to many people who served church missions in areas where the sport dominates. They come home with a newfound appreciation for the game. In addition, youth soccer leagues thrive along the Wasatch Front, building a ready made base of young and excited fans.
We were not happy with the way RSL and state lawmakers pushed a public financing deal on taxpayers to help with construction of Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy. Such public support seems to be built into the pro forma of many major league franchises in virtually all sports these days, which is particularly unfortunate at a time of tight budgets and economic hardship. Despite their connection to civic pride, sports ought to be able to survive on their own, as any other business. There is no denying, however, that soccer has a loyal following in Utah and that RSL’s success feeds that enthusiasm.
Of course, in the world of professional sports, nothing is certain (which is another reason taxpayer involvement ought to be avoided). Financial concerns perennially challenge small-market franchises like RSL, which recently underwent an ownership change and is now in the midst of a change involving a major corporate sponsorship. All of that aside, RSL has proven its viability as a source of local pride and civic identity.
That bodes well for the future of the sport in Utah — just as the team’s gritty, never-give-up attitude on the field bodes well for its chances in December to further secure a place of prominence in what’s known as the world’s “beautiful game.”