When Real Salt Lake takes the field at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League Final (10 p.m. ET, FOXSoccer Channel), the best team in Major League Soccer will be playing for more than a championship trophy. RSL will be playing for its place in American soccer history and playing for the pride of a league.
Why does a tournament that few American soccer fans know much about matter so much? It matters because the current structure of the tournament is a brutal test of any team hoping to lift the trophy, and no MLS team has come close to being good enough to lift the trophy since the tournament changed formats three years ago. In fact, no MLS team has even reached a CONCACAF tournament final since the CONCACAF Champions Cup was revamped in 2002.
D.C. United (1998) and the Los Angeles Galaxy (2000) were the first MLS teams to lift CONCACAF silverware, but the tournaments they won were a far cry from the current CONCACAF Champions League. Both teams won week-long tournaments hosted on American soil, playing just three matches to lift silverware. CONCACAF bolstered the tournament (known then as the Champions Cup) in 2002, before unveiling the new Champions League format in 2009.
Since ’02, no MLS team had reached a final, let alone won one, and the league’s record in the much tougher Champions League format was putrid before RSL’s strong run.
RSL has cast aside all past MLS struggles to put on a run worthy of a championship. The 2009 MLS Cup champions won a tough group that included Mexican side Cruz Azul, beat Deportivo Saprissa in the semifinals behind a gutsy performance at Estadio Saprissa, and went to Monterrey and recorded an impressive draw that has left Real Salt Lake with a very achievable task on Wednesday night.
RSL needs a win or draw of 0-0 or 1-1 to lift the trophy and defeat reigning Mexican champion Monterrey. It doesn’t seem like that much of an advantage until you consider that Rio Tinto Stadium has been a fortress for RSL, which hasn’t lost at home in 34 matches. The team’s home form in Champions League has been even more impressive, with RSL posting a 5-0 record, outscoring opponents 15-4.
Monterrey poses arguably the toughest challenge RSL has faced all tournament. A strong and deep team that can dominate possession and capitalize on the smallest of defensive mistakes, Monterrey is very capable of coming into Utah and snapping RSL’s home unbeaten streak, ending the American club’s dreams of a championship and a place in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Monterrey is capable but also very vulnerable. The Rayados have been struggling in Mexican league play, having failed to win in their past five league matches. Monterrey will also be without suspended striker Aldo de Nigris and injured captain Luis Perez. The Rayados still have plenty of talent to draw on though, with striker Humberto Suazo, goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco and defender Ricardo Osorio among the leading stars.
RSL faces its own personnel issue, with captain Kyle Beckerman set to miss the match due to suspension. His absence could leave Monterrey more room to operate in central midfield, but it should be noted Real Salt Lake has posted a 7-0-3 record in its past ten matches without Beckerman.
Jason Kreis wouldn’t reveal who he will turn to to replace Beckerman, but Ned Grabavoy seems like a safe bet to get the call. Whoever RSL puts on the field, it is very likely Real Salt Lake will look to attack Monterrey at home and test a defense it was able to score two impressive road goals against last week.
Monterrey’s offense has struggled to generate goals, particularly away from home, in recent weeks. The Rayados have been held to one or fewer goals in their past six all-competition road matches, a stretch of inefficiency that dates back to mid-February.
Ultimately, Real Salt Lake will need to make sure Monterrey doesn’t find mistakes to capitalize on while also putting early pressure on the visitors in hopes of finding an early goal that could boost what is already expected to be a raucous sell-out crowd at Rio Tinto.
RSL will take the field on Wednesday night as the favorites, even with all the history on Monterrey’s side, and the lack of history on Real Salt Lake’s side. This RSL team is built for this task, and anything short of a championship would be a disappointment. That alone shows just how far Real Salt Lake has come, but only a trophy would provide the fitting ending to a truly historic run.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.
The second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final will be brought to you on FOX Soccer Channel at 10 p.m. ET from Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.