Real Salt Lake bracing for Saprissa assault in CCL semifinal
When Real Salt Lake takes the field against Deportivo Saprissa at the imposing Estadio Ricardo Saprissa tonight (10pm ET, Fox Soccer Channel), the 2009 MLS Cup champions will be playing for much more than a place in the CONCACAF Champions League final. RSL will be playing for MLS history and its own legacy.
Boasting one of the best, and most entertaining teams in league history, Real Salt Lake has a chance to be the first MLS team to reach a Champions League Final. Major League Soccer couldn’t have asked for a better team to try and reach that milestone.
Real Salt Lake boasts a dangerous attack and a stingy defense, depth and experience. RSL will need all of those elements to help its 2-0 first-leg lead stand up in front of a sold-out crowd at Estadio Saprissa.
"We’ve got a lot of veterans on our team and a lot of guys that have been in situations and environments like this before," said RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "It’s just about us digesting it in the first half and getting through it. If we can get a point or come in at zeros at halftime I think we’re sitting pretty."
Deportivo Saprissa is a perennial Costa Rican powerhouse, and while the current installment of the squad isn’t as strong as past editions, playing at home in front of a raucous and intimidating crowd has helped Saprissa in the past and could play a role tonight.
"We know they’re going to come pumped up playing at home, but our chance to keep our composure and keep them at bay as much as we can," said RSL midfielder Andy Williams. "Coming here, even before you get out to the field, the stands here are shaking, so for the guys who haven’t been here before, they’re going to be in awe."
Real Salt Lake is fully expecting Deportivo Saprissa to come out attacking hard at the start of the match with the hope of scoring an early goal to put the pressure squarely on RSL, but anybody expecting an attack-minded team like RSL to bunker and defend would be mistaken.
"We don’t want to get into a mindset of coming here and defending for 90 minutes," Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis said. "We’re not a team that’s comfortable doing that, and I’m not a coach who’s comfortable watching his team play that way."
"We’re going to come in and try and win, try and be the better of the two teams in the first 15 minutes," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman. "If we can really put on some pressure, maybe even get a goal in the beginning, that’s what we’re going to be looking to do.
"In terms of bunkering in, maybe that’s something we’d do at the end of the game and it’s close," Beckerman said. "But for the most part we’re going to come out and try to win."
It is that attacking mindset, and the team’s ability to execute such a sharp attacking game predicated on strong possession, that has helped RSL stand out in MLS as a standard bearer in a league where far too few teams play attractive and effective attacking soccer.
Leading that attack will be Argentine playmaker Javier Morales and Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio, who made his career as a star forward for Deportivo Saprissa.
RSL won’t be careless in attacking early on, but the club realizes that an opportunity to score a valuable road goal early on could present itself if Deportivo Saprissa is careless in chasing an early goal.
Real Salt Lake will call on its record-breaking defense to stand firm against a Saprissa attack that has actually struggled in recent weeks, and is coming off a scoreless draw in group play last weekend.
Saprissa will be leaning on playmaker Walter Centeno, the Costa Rican national team star who spear-headed Costa Rica’s 3-1 World Cup qualifying win against the United States in 2009. Centeno’s creativity and goal-scoring ability will test RSL’s defense, and Beckerman will be key to slowing Centeno down.
If RSL can make its 2-0 lead stand up, and advance to the Champions League final, Real Salt Lake would move a step closer to adding another piece of silverware to its trophy case, and a step closer to the dream start to a season that could see Real Salt Lake challenge for an unprecedented MLS treble (Champions League, Supporters Shield and MLS Cup).
First, RSL must survive tonight at Estadio Saprissa. Doing so would make MLS history, with even greater history yet to be made.
"I don’t see history being made until we have that trophy," Rimando said. "People remember teams that win. We’re the first (MLS) team to get this far but it does nothing if we don’t win this tournament and right now we have to handle business against Saprissa."
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.