Real Salt Lake set for biggest game in MLS history

Wind or rain, cold or snow, they’ll be ready.

Real Salt Lake fans are set to serenade their team Wednesday
night when it plays four-time Mexican League champion Monterrey in
the second leg of a home-and-home CONCACAF Champions League
finals.

Granted, this is not Manchester United vs. Real Madrid. But if
RSL can hold its own again against Monterrey, it will get a chance
in December to prove itself on the world stage.

”We haven’t had that Lake Placid moment for U.S. soccer,” RSL
general manager Garth Lagerwey said, referring to the 1980
”Miracle on Ice” for the U.S. Olympic hockey team. ”That’s the
opportunity we have in front of us. We have an event to put the
world on notice that American soccer has taken another step
forward.”

The champion of CONCACAF – the soccer group made up of North and
Central America and the Caribbean – will head to Japan at the FIFA
Club World Cup.

There, it would face five other confederation champions and the
host nation. The last three FIFA Club World Cup winners came from
Europe: Inter Milan, Barcelona and Manchester United.

Real Salt Lake would be the first Major League Soccer team to
qualify under the revamped format. D.C. United won the CONCACAF
Champions League in 1998 and the L.A. Galaxy in 2000 but neither
title resulted in a FIFA Club World Cup appearance.

RSL has precious little history on its side, and not much money
as well. RSL’s payroll compared to that of Monterrey and possible
Club World Cup opponents is as low as the temperatures forecast for
Wednesday night.

Last week, when RSL played in Monterrey, it was 95 degrees at
gametime. On Wednesday night, temperatures at Rio Tinto Stadium in
suburban Salt Lake City figure to be in the low 40s.

”The colder the better,” midfielder Will Johnson said.

The game is sold out, with 20,000-plus seats quickly snapped up
by season ticket-holders at prices between $20 and $500. The fans
don’t care that Real Salt Lake is built with castoffs rather than
stars. They embrace the concept.

RSL’s payroll for 26 players is roughly $2.6 million. David
Beckham’s salary alone with the L.A. Galaxy is $6.5 milllion, and
he earns another $15 million annually in endorsements.

Monterrey, seeking its first continental crown in its 66-year
history, has several national team members making more than $1
million.

As Johnson knows, money doesn’t always buy happiness. He spent
two-plus seasons playing for a pair of Dutch teams but grew tired
of feeling alone. In Salt Lake, RSL is tight-knit, as evidenced by
a recent Easter brunch where each player brought a dish. Plus,
Johnson knows where to go if he craves great empanadas (Fabian
Espindola’s) or Jamaican jerk shrimp (Andy Williams’).

RSL captain Kyle Beckerman, who is suspended for Wednesday’s
game because he picked up a second yellow card in CONCACAF play
last week, is one of Kreis’ highest-paid players at $250,000
annually.

Kreis went from player to coach in the middle of the 2007
season. Rather than signing big-name players, he went after those
who would sacrifice for a common purpose. Kreis at the time was 34,
the youngest MLS coach.

”It was just unheard of to … drop him into the middle of that
abyss and hope he can swim,” said RSL color analyst Brian Dunseth,
a former RSL player and captain of the U.S. team at the 2000
Olympics.

The traits that helped earn Kreis league MVP honors as a striker
for the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) served him well as a coach.

”He definitely wasn’t the superstar … and he’s never been a
million-dollar player, but he was a guy who earned every single
opportunity he’s had,” Dunseth said.

Kreis guided RSL to the MLS Cup in 2009, his second full season
as coach. Now he has the players and fans aiming higher.

Last week, RSL played Monterrey to a 2-2 tie. The two away goals
mean RSL advances to the FIFA Club World Cup with a win, 1-1 or
scoreless tie. The game would go into overtime and possibly penalty
kicks if it ends in a 2-2 tie. Monterrey would advance outright
with a victory or 3-3 tie or greater.

Monterrey figures to be dangerous, certainly if Chilean striker
Humberto Suazo is healthy. However, it must overcome the loss of
striker Aldo de Nigris, who is out with accumulated yellow
cards.

Monterrey also must overcome a passionate crowd that is expected
to be clad in red. RSL is unbeaten in its last 37 games at Rio
Tinto – a far cry from those days at the University of Utah’s
Rice-Eccles Stadium, on artificial turf with football yard markers
still painted on the field.

Kreis can already picture Wednesday night’s ending.

”To lift the trophy in front of a sellout crowd, screaming for
us, that’s the stuff dreams are made of,” he said.