You don't have to be a player or even a big fan to have felt a little patriotism and enthusiasm for the U.S. soccer team during the World Cup matches. Maybe watching even sparked your curiosity or raised your respect for this sport that's little appreciated in this neck of the woods. (Although most everyone knows the viewership for the final World Cup game far outweighs that of the Super Bowl.)
Salt Lake City residents are proud to be part of the fever, and since 2008 they've showcased outstanding players in their impressive $110 million soccer specific stadium Rio Tinto (or the "Rio T," as the locals call it). Consider catching a game this summer. Just 15 minutes south of downtown and three minutes from the main freeway, the stadium's easy to reach. It may be easy, too, to become one of many loyal fans.
Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah — Photo courtesy of Real Salt Lake
If you followed on television, you might be aware of World Cup players Kyle Beckerman (that midfielder with the dreadlocks) and Nick Rimando (a goal keeper) on the roster for the Salt Lake team, the Real Salt Lake (RSL). Another Real player, Alvaro Saborio, qualified for the Costa Rican team. Meaning "royal" and pronounced re-al (as in Camino Real), the moniker is borrowed from the Spanish teams bearing the same name.
This disturbed some locals at first, but now, after seeing a budding partnership with the Real Madrid team, who play here every two years and are covering half the cost of a new elite training academy, it doesn't seem to bother folks now. Plus, their team is one of the top in the MLS league; there's huge RSL pride here.
Head south to Salt Lake City's suburb of Sandy and follow mascot "Iron Lion Zion" in the singing of "Believe" pre-game, after every goal and especially during the post-game celebration to cheer on the Real. Regular season games continue all the way through October.
This may be the year the Real take the national title for real! Last year, they made it all the way to the final only to lose a heartbreaker, so the hunger lingers. The Real actually had the longest unbeaten run last year, going 12 matches undefeated.
Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake — Photo courtesy of Dan S
Former player and head coach for seven years Jason Kreis, who scored the club's first goal in 2005, led the team to win the national championship in 2009, with Nick Rimando, star goalkeeper, being named "Man of the Match" that game.
That same year, the RLS played host to the MLS All Star Game. Rio Tinto Stadium has also been home to World Cup qualifications and the finals last year for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Utahns got to witness their team make MLS history during the 2010-2011 season, going undefeated for the longest streak at home - 34 games - an MLS record.
Maybe it was thanks, in part, to such loud and loyal supporters. These are some serious fans here in Salt Lake, and no doubt, some serious players.
Beckerman, age 32, team captain since 2008, has played 187 games at Rio Tinto Stadium, scoring 23 goals, with teammmate Javier Morales playing 169 games and making an impressive 32 goals. New coach since December 2013, Jeff Cassar must be excited with the veteran men on his roster.
With tickets ranging in price from $25 all the way to $500, depending on location (There are 32 state-of-the-art suites.), you can see the team play against other MLS clubs in the league from the U.S. and Canada, with the neighboring Colorado Rapids probably being their biggest rival. (These two compete annually in the Rocky Mountain Cup.)
Parents with younger ones appreciate the shuttles running from Sandy City Hall that drop you off right in front of the stadium, and there is even a designated family section, where no alcohol is allowed.
Carnival Real occurs two hours before the game, with live music, free giveaways and other fun activities. Tailgating is also allowed, but leave your cooler at the car. Grab your seat, and enjoy the beautiful view of the Oquirrh and Wasatch Mountains. Oh, and be sure to blend in with other rowdy Real fans by practicing and believing these lyrics:
"If you believe, then you stand up on your feet, and shout it out: Real. Here at the riot, the battle hymn's begun. We're here for RSL!"