By JOSE M. ROMERO
With a win at home Wednesday night, where Real Salt Lake hasn't lost in 37 straight matches, the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League trophy will find a home in Sandy, Utah.
It's quite a story. Real Salt Lake has become the darling of soccer in America, with fellow MLS clubs among the many who've gotten behind the claret-and-blue shield in mass show of support for the club. Real Salt Lake's second-leg final with Monterrey of Mexico concludes at Rio Tinto Stadium, and one of the teams will be crowned regional club champion while clinching a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.
For RSL, winning puts the club in a bigger spotlight and automatically raises the profile of MLS with it. Winning would make Real Salt Lake the first MLS team to lift the CONCACAF Champions League trophy, a piece of history RSL will have earned.
"We're carrying the flag right now, and we're the vanguard," RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said Monday. "The incredible emphasis that we've put on this competition has proved worthwhile for us.
"One of the important themes here is that even if we are fortunate enough to win this thing, if you want to permanently alter the landscape you have to have consistent MLS success in this tournament. The league has created a number of incentives to make that possible: lightening the schedule, providing allocation money for the teams in the tournament. Those are things that help and show everybody that this is for the benefit of the league."
Lagerwey feels there is still a lot of work to be done to make MLS matter in its own country. Part of the search for more attention for the league is making sure all clubs take CCL participation seriously each year.
He said many U.S. soccer fans still tune out MLS and watch EPL matches instead.
"I think we get more respect outside our country than we do inside it, and I think we'll win over a whole bunch of fans who simply can’t ignore us if we’re able to win and achieve consistent success," Lagerwey said. "We cannot expect to be given respect. We have to earn it."
Real Salt Lake will have to go on without midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman, who got his second yellow card of the CCL knockout round and therefore is ineligible to play Wednesday.
It's a tough problem to have, but then RSL has a ton of depth.
"Luckily we have a strong and large roster with great players waiting to play, so let's hope that whoever gets on the field plays a great game and helps the team the same way as Kyle would," midfielder Javier Morales said. "(But) without a doubt, we have lost the leader of the team."
The players and Lagerwey anticipate the opportunity to celebrate a major title in front of their home fans, the chance of a lifetime for all.
"I don't think any of us are intimidated at this point," Lagerwey said. "We're ready to go to battle one more time and win this thing."