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Tuesday night's CONCACAF Champions League win by Monterrey was a punch in the gut to Real Salt Lake and really all of MLS. The entire league jumped on the Salt Lake bandwagon for the latter portion of the tournament as the club carried the torch for the entire league. Not since CONCACAF's top club tournament went to a format that included a group stage instead of just a knockout tournament had a MLS club made it to the final. In fact, no team from outside Mexico had made it to a final, but Salt Lake bucked that trend and made it to the final.
There was plenty of fanfare surrounding Salt Lake going into the final, but when they went to Monterrey and came away with a 2-2 draw, all of a sudden the expectations were raised. Real Salt Lake really had a chance to win the tournament. Well, on Tuesday night Monterrey went to Rio Tinto Stadium and came away with a win that left many despondent. Even so, Denz, from SB Nation's Real Salt Lake blog RSL Soapbox points to the future and the impact of RSL's run to the final.
For MLS teams the bar has been raised, it is no longer acceptable to play your reserves and not care about the Champions League. Oh, take notice we now have a new single minded focus, if you thing our 4-0-0 record was a fluke you are about to find out that we are very much for real.
For RSL players, coaches, and staff, the bar has been raised, we know that we are an elite team with incredible depth, now we have 48 hours to get ready for Portland away. You have big matches at home coming up, lets get ready and be focused on starting our new undefeated at home streak, cause it starts in 9 days.
As Denz makes clear, the bar has been raised. Real Salt Lake was the first team to really prioritize the CONCACAF Champions League above all else and it paid off by making the final. They also got support from all of American soccer and now those fans of the Colorado Rapids, Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas (the American teams who will compete in the next CONCACAF Champions League) who were pulling for RSL will certainly put pressure on their clubs to prioritize the tournament. Just by making the final, Salt Lake has most definitely changed the way MLS looks at the tournament, but now that they are "the second best team in CONCACAF" they need to accept the expectations that come with it and be tops in MLS come the fall.
Real Salt Lake's fortress is quite as impenetrable as it seemed. Heading into their home leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final with Monterrey tied 2-2 on aggregate, RSL fell 1-0. The loss ended their 37-match home unbeaten streak and left them one goal short of becoming the first MLS team to earn a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup. Instead, Monterrey becomes the third straight Mexican team to win the CCL.
Ultimately, RSL just couldn't break through against a Monterrey defense that seemed perfectly willing to defend once Humberto Suazo gave them a 1-0 lead just before the end of the first half. RSL was able to apply some serious pressure in the closing minutes and forced Monterrey goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco into some quality saves. But the RSL attack lacked the kind of classing finishing that allowed Monterrey to score on their only shot on goal.
If there is a goat in a RSL kit, it was probably Jamison Olave. On the game's goal, he allowed Suazo to get between him and the goal and never seemed to make much attempt to impede him as he followed up as Sergio Santana was able to get around his defender.
Ned Grabavoy seemed to perform admirably in place of Kyle Beckerman, the RSL captain who was forced to sit out with yellow card accumulation. RSL was able to hold possession in the midfield and were able to create some chances, just not finish them.
The loss can't help but be a letdown for RSL, which had become the banner carrier for MLS. While they were the first MLS team to advance beyond the CCL quarterfinals, this will clearly be seen as a disappointment to a team that had set its sights high. Now, they will have to turn their attention to MLS after having literally rearranged their schedule to accommodate their CCL run.
If Real Salt Lake goes on to lose this match, the question most people will likely be asking is, Why did Jason Kreis wait so long to bring in Paulo Junior? The Brazilian striker did not enter until the 82nd minute of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Monterrey, which was probably about 10 minutes later than he probably should have entered for Fabian Espindola.
RSL's attack suffered for lack of finishing much of the night, with Espindola missing several golden opportunities. Alvaro Saborio, his strike partner, did not have any howlers, but he also didn't create many good chances.
As it stands, it looks like Humberto Suazo's goal at the end of the first half is going to stand up as the game's only goal and allow Monterrey to win the title by a 3-2 aggregate score. Sergio Santana assisted on that goal, as both looked far more composed around the net than RSL's strikers.
Humberto Suazo may very well be the best striker in all of CONCACAF and he just showed why. The Monterrey striker scored just before the final whistle blew at the end of the first half. Monterrey now leads Real Salt Lake 3-2 on aggregate in the CONCACAF Champions League final.
The chance was almost too easy for Suazo, who received a pass from Sergio Santana just outside the 6-yard box and practically walked in past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Santana did most of the hard work on the goal, beating his defender on the dribble, drawing Rimando's attention and laying it off to Suazo who was essentially unmarked by the trailing Jamison Olave.
RSL probably had the better of play throughout the first half, but the final 10 minutes of the half were decidedly tilted toward Monterrey. Suazo was able to work himself free on one shot from just outside the penalty area and Monterrey had started to control more of the possession.
Fabian Espindola was the first player to go into the book, picking up a yellow card for a sloppy tackle from behind in the 31st minute. Espindola made a stab at the ball, but got mostly knee on the attempt. The score remains 0-0 in the CONCACAF Champions League final against Monterrey.
During the first half-hour, RSL has mostly had the better of play, not giving the depleted Monterrey attack much room in which to operate. Los Rayados have had precious few opportunities and have yet to really challenge RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. He has not yet made a save.
RSL has managed a few dangerous attempts with Espindola coming close to giving his team the lead on a three different occasions. His best chance came in the 36th minute when he was sent free on a 1 vs. 1 situation with Monterrey goalkeeper Jonathon Orozco, but his shot on a nearly open goal went just wide.
There was really only one question surrounding Real Salt Lake's starting lineup in the second leg of Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions Leauge final against Monterrey: Who would start in place of suspended Kyle Beckerman. In a move that really should not come as a huge surprise, Ned Grabavoy will start in Beckerman's place with Andy Williams starting at the left midfield spot.
Grabavoy will be joined by what is essentially a first-choice lineup for RSL, who is trying to become the first MLS team to play in the FIFA Club World Cup. Robbie Russel and Chris Wingert will start at full back; Jamison Olave and Nat Brochers are at center back and play in front of goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Javier Morales will start at his customary central midfield spot and Will Johnson will be the starting right midfielder. Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola will be the starting forwards.
Real Salt Lake lineup (4-4-2): Rimando; Russell, Olave, Borchers, Wingert; Williams, Grabavoy, Morales, Johnson; Saborío, Espíndola
Sergio Santana was one of Monterrey's potentially ailing starters as they prepared for Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League final against Real Salt Lake, but he's apparently fit enough to start. Santana has played both in the midfield and at forward, but will start this match at forward. He has scored two goals in seven CCL appearances.
Santana will be joined by Humberto Suazo at forward. Suazo is considered one of the top strikers in CONCACAF and has scored three goals in the tournament. His participation in the final round was in doubt, but he put off shoulder surgery in order to be available.
Monterrey is trying to become the third straight Mexican Primera team to win the CCL. In fact, Mexican teams have so far been the teams to win the tournament since it adopted its current format.
Monterrey's lineup (4-4-2): Orozco; Osorio, Mier, Basanta, Cherokee Perez; Cardozo, Ayovi, Morales, Martinez; Santana, Humberto Suazo
Being based in the United States, most of the media coverage of the CONCACAF Champions League final has come at it from Real Salt Lake's point of view. In light of all that information, you could be excused for starting to believe that RSL is a significant favorite to win the tournament. FMF State of Mind, SB Nation's Mexican soccer blog, doesn't see it quite as obvious and lists off reasons why Monterrey will win:
Monterrey's Victor Manuel Vucetich has never lost a final as a manager. And this is not some young coach, either. Vucetich has been on the sidelines in Mexico for over two decades and has taken several different teams to league titles. He has won five Mexican Primera championships (two with Monterrey, one each with Pachuca, Tecos, and Leon), plus two second division titles (with Leon and Potros Neza), and also two titles in the now defunct Copa Mexico. Put simply, Vucetich knows how to motivate his team in these situations. Going into the second leg of a final at a disadvantage is also nothing new for the veteran manager. Last season, Santos led Monterrey 3-2 after the first leg of the Primera championship. Monterrey easily overcame this deficit, routing Santos 3-0 in the second leg to capture the trophy. Vucetich leads with an aura of calmness and confidence, and no doubt he will have his players ready to win tonight.
MLS is only 16 years old, so it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that the league lacks many legitimately "huge" moments. There was the first-ever game, of course, but after that it's hard to point to anytime when the league honestly drew the attention of the casual sports fan. The Daily Soccer Fix, Steve Davis' soccer blog, points out that by winning Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League final Real Salt Lake would earn a chance to play in the FIFA World Cup and really create one of those national stages:
It will add to awareness, in the States and abroad. It will make news this winter, at a time when MLS is making news only to the real soccer die-hards. In the preceding months, it will make RSL a bigger brand and a bigger draw around 17 other MLS markets. No, RSL won’t sell out the grounds the way Beckham-over-America did in 2007. But it will make a few more fans come out to get a gander at the regional champs, and that’s a good thing.
The hopes and dreams of MLS and U.S. Soccer seem to be resting on the shoulders of Real Salt Lake as they prepare to take on Monterrey in the final leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final on Wednesday. They'll be playing in front of a packed stadium on national TV and will be facing a team that is much more accustomed to this kind of pressure. Despite all this, RSL Soapbox, SB Nation's Real Salt Lake blog, says the players and coaches seem relatively relaxed:
This is a mighty load that has been put on their shoulders, yet watching them practice on Tuesday you would never know, yet talking to them you would never know. Oh they acknowledge the importance of the match and the relevance of what they have and could accomplish, I think all of them have adopted the attitude that head coach Jason Kreis mentioned on Saturday, that this is " a chance to pay back the fans for all their support, a way to say thank you for all they have given us".
This has been called the biggest match in Real Salt Lake history and possibly the most important game in which a MLS team has ever played. Despite RSL having played in a MLS Cup and MLS teams playing in and even winning continental titles, this really does seem like a seminal moment for both.
In a perfect world, both teams would be coming into this match with equal motivations and on equal terms. Unfortunately, it's hard to shake the feeling that Monterrey is much more concerned with their possibly missing the Mexican Primera Liguilla, while RSL is so focused on this match that they've even altered their MLS schedule.
Both teams are also missing some key players. RSL's big absence is defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who is being forced to sit with yellow-card accumulation. Monterrey has even bigger problems, playing without forward Aldo De Nigris and midfielders Luis Perez and Jesus Zavala, as well as possibly midfielder Sergio Santana.
The game may very well fall short of its classic potential, but that shouldn't diminish its potential importance. This has a chance to be a real benchmark game for U.S. soccer. With two road goals already in their pocket and a dead-locked aggregate score, RSL merely needs a 0-0 or 1-1 tie to claim the title. Considering they haven't allowed as many as two goals in a home match in about a year and haven't lost at home since 2009, both seem like good bets.
Monterrey has not been the most dominant team in CCL, but they have not lost any of their 11 matches. It would be a real shame if they managed to go undefeated and failed to win the championship. But destiny seems to be on RSL's side, and it would be fitting if they could do it with a victory. Somehow, I see a 2-1 RSL victory.
* Thanks to Eben Lehman of FMF State of Mind providing information about Monterrey.
It's perhaps a bit easy to get carried away with hyperbole when talking about the opportunity that is being presented to Real Salt Lake when they host Monterrey with a chance to win the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday. RSL GM Garth Lagerwey, for instance, likened it to a certain gold-medal winning hockey team:
"(U.S. Soccer) haven’t had that Lake Placid moment like the 1980 U.S. hockey team - but that’s the opportunity I think we have," he said recently. "I think we have an event of that scale that can put the world on notice that American soccer is taking another step forward."
While it may be unrealistic for a RSL victory to grab the attention of the American public in anyway similar to the way that Olympic team did when it was facing their biggest Cold War enemy, this is still a historic moment in U.S. soccer history. No MLS team has won CONCACAF Champions League, and the last team to win a continental championship of any kind was back in 2000 when the Los Angeles Galaxy won a tournament played under drastically different rules. No MLS team has ever played in the FIFA Club World Cup, which RSL will do if they can at least pull out a 1-1 tie.
That plucky U.S. hockey team, made up of mostly college kids, beat one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Monterrey, on the verge of missing their domestic league playoffs, is hardly a juggernaut in the same way. RSL, generally recognized as the best team in MLS, is no minnow.
A RSL victory could hardly even be considered a huge upset. Maybe that says even more, though. MLS has not caught the Mexican Primera, far from it. But it does say something that a team in the heavily salary-capped league can now compete on even ground with a well-funded and expertly run club like Monterrey. It says MLS teams can compete with the continental rivals, even if only on occasion. It says smart decisions can overcome a lack of funds. It says good scouting and quality coaching can, at times, be enough.
This RSL team does not have huge international stars, but its roster is as deep as just about any other on the continent. Winning the CCL would not be a "Miracle on Grass," but it is an important benchmark and one that could herald a new era in our domestic league.
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