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.