Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By JOSE M. ROMERO
Those who take more than a passing interest in Major League Soccer knew Real Salt Lake would have a quality side in 2011.
Twelve points and a tie for the Western Conference lead say so thus far. But RSL has a chance to do something truly remarkable for an MLS club roughly a month into the season — win the CONCACAF Champions League title and represent the region in the FIFA Club World Cup.
That has never been achieved by an MLS team. Neither has winning a meaningful game in Mexico. It's not enough that Real Salt Lake made MLS history just by getting to the CCL final. Now, starting with the first leg Wednesday at Estadio Tecnologico, RSL has a golden opportunity to win a competition routinely dominated by Mexican club teams. One, Monterrey, stands in the way of a trophy of monumental significance for club and league.
Hola Primera Division. Somos "Eme-ele-ese."
"Other than the MLS Cup, we’ve never played a game in our history that’s as big as this," RSL owner Dave Checketts said. "This is an opportunity to stamp Real Salt Lake’s presence on the entire world of soccer. I don’t think anyone could have imagined that. It’s an incredible opportunity."
RSL has long since arrived in Monterrey to get used to the heat (temperatures in the high 90s) and the way the stadium's field plays. Players realize that pride is at stake, especially for Los Rayados, who want to maintain Mexico's supremacy in this competition and win their first CCL title since 1993.
Think this doesn't mean much to Monterrey? Think again.
"All of this would lose sense if we are not champions of something," team president Jorge Urdiales told the Mexican newswire Agencia Reforma. "I want to emphasize to the fans that it is important for all of us to get involved and united for Wednesday."
Said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman: "These teams know how important these tournaments are and they are used to this type of tournament. I think we are going to have to keep at it and keep believing that we can get one over on these guys."
Real hopes to build off a good performance in Mexico earlier in CCL play, a 5-4 loss to Cruz Azul last fall. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando doesn't think his team will fear its opponent.
"We were the underdogs before and we know what it is like to come into an environment and not expect to win or pull a result out, and I think we have the guys who can do that," Rimando said. "There is nothing that says we can’t go in in there and get a result. We don’t have to win but getting a result would be good for us."
Real Salt Lake knows, from Checketts to the players, that it is representing MLS and that teams throughout the league are rallying behind it. MLS commissioner Don Garber will be on hand in Monterrey Wednesday, and many other league executives and employees will travel to Sandy, Utah, for the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium April 27.
RSL coach Jason Kreis expressed gratitude to the league office for helping make it possible for his team to be competitive in the tournament.
"There have been teams in the past built on the starting 11 and once you got past that, the depth and true quality of the players went down drastically," Kreis said. "I would say at Real Salt Lake we’ve been supported on a different level by our ownership and we’ve been supported on a different level by the league because of how much emphasis and how much help they’ve been willing to give us and put some weight behind this CONCACAF competition.
"Finally, I would say the league has made some very good decisions over the past five years about raising salary caps and making it possible for teams to get more depth and more quality from No. 1 to No. 30."