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Real Salt Lake feels now is time for glory

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If you're convinced things can't possibly turn on a dime, that your fortunes will never change, that your ship really won't come in until the dock is closed, consider the case of Real Salt Lake.

Three weeks ago, Utah's Major League Soccer club was hoping just to build support for next year by sneaking into the playoffs. Now it's echoing the old Larry Bird line: "Who wants to finish second?"

RSL is in the conference final, scheduled Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium, trying to decide which theme fits best: "Real Change" or "The Audacity of Hope."

It never hurts to recycle the good ones.

Tuesday at RTS, the club held a combination press conference/motivational rally. It was a cozy affair that included lunch, interviews with the players and a crackling fire — ostensibly in their bellies as well as the fireplace.

The objective was to inspire fans to attend Saturday's match against New York.

There was a lot of talk about opportunity; a lot of reminding fans of their role. General manager Garth Lagerwey noted that chances like this don't often happen.

"If you have supported this team, you have suffered with this team," he said.

Who knew the two didn't necessarily go hand in hand?

"This," Lagerwey continued with a dramatic pause, "is our time."

Lagerwey went on to say RSL's shot at a title is a chance "to win the very first professional championship in this city."

OK, so he wasn't around for the Utah Stars. And maybe he doesn't consider the minor league Bees/Buzz/Stingers/Gulls/Trappers/Golden Eagles as professionals.

Until lately, it was debatable whether RSL was a professional team, too.

Whatever the case, Real has gone from needing some luck to making its own.

"We were seconds away from not even making the playoffs, to making the conference final," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando.

As the regular season waned, RSL needed to have several things happen, and they did. The club required four points in the standings in the final two games, and it got them, beginning with a 3-1 win over Dallas on Oct. 18.

It could have clinched a playoff spot had Chivas USA defeated Colorado, but that didn't occur.

It needed a draw or a win in the season finale at Colorado; the tying goal came in the 90th minute. It also executed a goal in the 90th minute to win its first playoff game against Chivas.

At that point, people began noticing something was afoot.

Real needed a draw in its second playoff game against Chivas to advance, and it got that, too.

Finally, it needed one of the most unlikely playoff upsets in MLS history, in order to host this Saturday's Western Conference final. That, too, happened as the Red Bulls beat Houston.

"Luck has been going against us the last couple of years, since I've been here, and finally it's come back and is rewarding us," continued Rimando.

Luck, he added, and a whole lot of confidence and effort.

Thus, Real was in full marketing mode Tuesday. The players spoke of chance, karma, work and perseverance. But mostly they talked about something they claim to have known all along: Their belief that they're among the best teams in MLS.

The gee-whiz-we-made-the-playoffs motif has been replaced with honest to goodness self-assurance. Is this unusual? Not really. This sort of thing actually happens all the time. Give someone an inch and pretty soon he's your boss.

Teams go from hoping to believing, from believing to expecting, and from expecting to demanding.

Call it the Amazin' Mets factor. If you're not old enough to remember the '69 Mets, just think of the 2007-08 New York Giants.

"Obviously," said RSL coach Jason Kreis, "we have a real, real chance to win it all."

So the momentum has shifted. RSL isn't coming into Saturday's match hat-in-hand. In fact, it's feeling downright certain.

All it took was changing — of the roster and a few plays at the last possible moment.

You may not truly think such things can happen, but then they do, and suddenly you're in a different place.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com