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RSL's cup hopes alive stay, though home pitch barely cooperates

SANDY — Straight from their travels to far-flung points, Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar and his team took care of some housekeeping items, Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium. They unlocked the doors, watered the plants, dusted the furniture and flung open the windows to air things out.

Then they put away the determined Wilmington Hammerheads 2-2 in U.S. Open Cup play via a shootout (3-1).

Chris Wingert scored the deciding goal to give Real the win.

It’s great to be home.

They haven’t played in Sandy since walking off the pitch April 30 following a win over Houston. Then came the six-week absence while workers installed new turf at Rio Tinto. In the meantime, the cautious optimism they took with them on their five-game road stretch was replaced by confidence.

That’s what happens when you survive a death march, winning a respectable two of five matches.

Anything that follows can’t be all that bad.

But it nearly was.

RSL advanced in U.S. Open Cup play despite itself. The Hammerheads aren’t a household name. Players walked onto the pitch two hours before the game and excitedly snapped photos of one another. A trip to the bigs is a trip to the bigs.

But they were a name to watch, nevertheless, if for no other reason than Real has been shocked before.

“It’s their Super Bowl,” said one RSL staffer.

Remember this? The year was 2012, the opponent was the Division II Minnesota Stars. The result was a 3-1 Stars win.

Two years later it was another Open Cup upset, a 2-1 loss to the lower-division Atlanta Silverbacks.

With that in mind, there should have been considerable anticipation on the part of RSL on Tuesday. A new playing field is one thing. But getting off to a good restart was imperative. But with an MLS match coming up Saturday, Cassar sent an abbreviated lineup into action.

Fact is, even though Tuesday’s match was a non-MLS game, it was of considerable importance to RSL on at least one level: This team badly needs hardware. In its 11 years of existence, it has collected only one major cup: the 2009 MLS Cup. Meanwhile, RSL has made a living off coming close. It was runner-up in the 2013 MLS Cup and 2011 Champions League competitions. In 2013, Real was poised to win the U.S. Open Cup, only to lose to D.C. United in the title game.

As good as RSL has historically been, it still hasn’t established much of a legacy. Its trophy case is as empty as shelves in a thrift store.

At the same time, soccer is one sport that believes in second chances. If you don’t win one championship, there’s another one coming along, i.e. Gold Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Supporter’s Shield, etc. How generous is that? A team can actually win several championships in a year.

The first round of Open Cup play is designed to winnow lower league and open division teams. As each round advances, better leagues are added. MLS teams don’t enter play until the fourth round.

Thus on Tuesday, the quest began for Real. Was the respectable road trip only a mirage? Will the newly resurfaced field prove magical for RSL and its fans? RSL fell behind 2-0 before tying the score in the 87th minute.

Most importantly, with eight of its next 10 matches at home — including an international friendly — will Real jump to the forefront in the Western Division?

It should.

At this point, Salt Lake would take a bouquet of balloons and a greeting card as a trophy. So it went, a close win against a lesser opponent.

It’s always harder than it seems.

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