From the moment Javier Morales touched the ball ahead of him, and Monterrey defenders closed in, he could have rushed a shot or a hasty pass. The Argentine playmaker lined up to shoot, but instead of potentially wasting Real Salt Lake’s last good chance to escape Mexico with a precious road draw, he faked a shot, let a defender run past him and blasted home what could ultimately be one of the most important goals in MLS history.
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Real Salt Lake took the trip to Mexico needing a result reasonable enough to make the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium next week manageable. RSL did more than that, taking the game to the Mexican champions and leaving with a 2-2 tie and clear momentum heading into Wednesday’s second leg.
An early Monterrey goal threatened to shake the visitors, but RSL showed once again that the veteran unit is capable of weathering storms and going after opponents who might make the mistake of thinking Real Salt Lake is easily shaken.
Not only did RSL not fold in the face of pressure, the team’s star players rose to the occasion. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando made a plethora of outstanding saves, defender Nat Borchers delivered a vital equalizing header and Morales pulled off a moment of brilliance that had to leave Monterrey wondering how an MLS team could be so strong.
No, Real Salt Lake didn’t become the first MLS team to win a competitive match on Mexican soil, but its performance was arguably the most impressive ever by an MLS team south of the border. RSL stood toe-to-toe with the defending Mexican League champions and pushed them to the brink, leaving Monterrey with a monumental task in the second leg.
RSL didn’t necessarily outplay Monterrey, but there wasn’t much separating the sides and you can argue that the visiting team’s goals were much better, and RSL had as many quality chances as Monterrey had. The high-priced Rayados squad didn’t look so imposing against an RSL side built on a fraction of Monterrey’s budget.
Real Salt Lake’s work isn’t done. Even with the club’s staggering 37-game home unbeaten streak, RSL must hold off a desperate Monterrey side without the services of captain Kyle Beckerman, who received a questionable yellow card that will force him to miss the second leg. With the possible exception of goalkeeper Nick Rimando, Beckerman is the toughest player for Real Salt Lake’s deep bench to replace.
RSL’s lineup is still more than strong enough to deal with a Monterrey side that will also be missing players, most notably suspended forward Aldo DeNigris. Monterrey will also be dealing with a key weekend clash against Puebla while Real Salt Lake has the luxury of having the weekend off after MLS moved its weekend match against Philadelphia to later in the year.
The rest should be crucial for a Real Salt Lake team that looked completely spent by the time Wednesday’s final whistle blew and RSL had grabbed a precious road point.
Now RSL stands just days away from a potential date with history. A win or low-scoring draw in the second leg will make Real Salt Lake the first MLS club to lift the CONCACAF Champions League trophy, giving RSL a ticket to the Club World Cup. After Wednesday night’s convincing performance in Mexico, where so many MLS teams have been crushed, RSL has the momentum and some well-earned confidence thanks to a strong team effort, and some special contributions from its biggest stars.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.