The bar has been raised for Real Salt Lake.
Simply winning a game here and there is no longer enough. The franchise tasted success in the past month and was inches away from advancing to the MLS Cup on Saturday night. An encore will be more than expected by the fans and the team next year.
"We laid down a very solid foundation, a very solid plan about what we want to be and who we want to be, and this year we got a little further than we had expected," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "So next year we will be looking for improvement upon what we've done this year."
Kreis thanked the fans who came out in droves for the Western Conference final and in many ways apologized the team couldn't deliver the result they were looking for. He asked the fans, however, to "stick with us, we're going places."
The culture has definitely changed. The franchise that finished with a combined 21-50-23 record in its first three seasons is a thing of the past. The 2008 Real Salt Lake team finished at .500 (10-10-10) for the first time in franchise history and a positive goal differential at plus one. It won its first-ever playoff series against Chivas, while its fellow expansion brethren have yet to advance out of the first round despite three appearances.
With that said, chances like the one RSL missed out on Saturday night don't come around that often. Earlier this week certain individuals talked about how rare advancing to an MLS Cup truly is. There is no better evidence of that than New York, which had never qualified for the league championship prior to its win over Real Salt Lake.
RSL midfielder Andy Williams, a member of the team since the expansion draft in 2004, believes the foundation was laid this year for his team to be a factor for years to come.
"If we play like how we did at the end of the year we'll be in the same position next year with a few key additions," he said.
There will inevitably be a key loss, though.
Every team in MLS must submit their list of unprotected players by next Monday for Seattle's expansion draft. Excluding Generation adidas players, which includes guys like Chris Seitz and Tony Beltran, RSL is only allowed to protect 11 players, and three of those players must be foreigners.
"I feel like we have a team this year with too many good players not to lose one that we like very, very much. That's going to be a difficult scenario, and there's going to be difficult messages to give to players," said Kreis. "We have in my opinion more than 11 starters on my team."
Asked about how he would approach that situation this offseason, Kreis seemed to honestly declare he wasn't sure. Kreis and his coaching staff have focused so intently on the playoffs the past month there's been little time to discuss personnel for the 2009 season.
Things will definitely be different for RSL next year, but making the playoffs will by no means be a foregone conclusion.
Not only did the team barely make the playoffs in 2008 to begin with, but the Seattle franchise joins the league next year and it is already putting together what appears to be a competitive team. Then there are fellow Western Conference teams like Los Angeles and Dallas, each of whom missed the playoffs this year but who will definitely make drastic overhauls this offseason to be more competitive in 2009.
Kreis is extremely optimistic about the future.
"There certainly have been moments and then a lot of them at the end of the season where the team could see the type of potential they have," said Kreis.