For RSL, favorable result most important objective
Mexico has been an unforgiving place for Major League Soccer teams. In fact, no MLS has team has gone south of the border and won a competitive match. Twenty-four times an MLS team has made the trip and failed to win, with only three being able to even manage a draw.
As awful as that record is, perhaps no team has gone to Mexico more prepared and more equipped to grab a rare road victory than Real Salt Lake, which is in Mexico tonight to take on Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Final (10 p.m. Eastern, FOX Soccer Channel).
The strongest team in MLS, Real Salt Lake also plays the most attractive soccer in the league. A possession style that can match up well against Latin American opponents just as well as MLS foes.
RSL’s creativity and quality will be severely tested tonight by a Monterrey side that happens to be the reigning Mexican champion. A physical team with a tough defense and some dangerous attacking weapons, Monterrey is a much tougher opponent for RSL to deal with than its last Mexican opponent Cruz Azul.
Against Cruz Azul, RSL faced a team that liked to attack as much as Real Salt Lake did, and the result was some great, wide-open soccer, including a memorable 5-4 Cruz Azul win that saw four goals scored in the final minutes.
Monterrey won’t be nearly as generous. With rising Mexican national team goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco in net, World Cup veteran Ricardo Osorio and Argentine captain Jose Maria Basante. That defense has been key to Monterrey winning consecutive Mexican Apertura championships, and its track record in the CONCACAF Champions League (an impressive eight goals allowed in ten matches) says it all.
RSL’s offense hasn’t been lighting it up in recent weeks, but the team’s free-flowing passing attack has been running well, and beating Monterrey in the possession game will be important tonight. The battle in midfield will be especially intriguing given it can be considered the true strength of both teams.
Where Real Salt Lake has a very good chance to come away with a victory tonight is by shutting down a struggling Monterrey attack that has caused the team to have issues in Mexican league play, The 'Rayados' have gone winless in their last four matches (0-1-3) in league and has scored one goal or fewer in each of those matches. In fact, Monterrey nearly didn’t reach the CONCACAF Champions League Final, but a questionable penalty call in the semifinal second leg against Cruz Azul helped Monterrey advance.
Monterrey’s attack features Chilean striker Humberto Suazo and veteran midfielders Jesus Arellano and Neri Cardozo. Suazo is the key, but he’s been nursing a painful shoulder injury that has hampered his play. The physical Real Salt Lake centerback tandem of Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, the best combo in MLS, will need to shut down Suazo to help RSL escape Monterrey with a favorable result.
While leaving Mexico with Major League Soccer’s first victory is the goal, RSL is also fully aware that the most important thing is leaving Monterrey with a favorable result. If Real Salt Lake can win, draw, or at the very least, score a road goal or two and keep the result to a one-goal deficit, the return leg next week in Utah suddenly becomes so much more important. RSL hasn’t lost at Rio Tinto Stadium in two years and being that close to lifting a trophy at home would surely provide a major boost to the 2009 MLS Cup Champions.
First things first, RSL must earn a favorable result in Monterrey. A bad loss is unacceptable. And a victory in Mexico? It would be historic and would push RSL one major step toward a trophy no MLS team before it has won.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.