By Ridge Mahoney
Of course, Real Salt Lake wants to win the Concacaf Champions League. But can it?
It cleared the first hurdle Tuesday, albeit a familiar one in advantageous circumstances, by beating Columbus, 4-1, at Rio Tinto Stadium to win the two-game series by the same count on aggregate. That’s an impressive scoreline but one that could have been anticipated given the changes and problems imposed on Crew coach Robert Warzycha.
The Crew fielded rookies in two crucial, central positions – midfielder Cole Grossman, center back Rich Balchin – and RSL took advantage of them as well as left back Josh Gardner, who has bounced between the lower divisions and MLS for the past seven seasons with good reason. Tack on the sidelining of captain Chad Marshall, a midfield slow to apply pressure to playmaker Javier Morales and a third-choice keeper in goal, and you have the recipe for a rout, which is just about what happened.
A few observers were fooled by the under-strength Crew holding RSL to zero shots on goal and corner kicks at home in the 0-0 first leg; a more objective view was that the home team also struggled, managing just one shot on goal against an opponent who played a man down (at first 11-v-10, then 10-v-9) following the dismissal of Tony Beltran in the 52nd minute. Short-handed on the road in slippery, icy conditions, RSL bunkered down and got out of Dodge dead-even in expectation of winning the home leg. Mission accomplished.
Warzycha needs time to revamp a team that has lost Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hedjuy, Jason Garey, Gino Padula, Steven Lenhart and Brian Carroll, among others, but in his third season since predecessor Sigi Schmid won the title in 2008, Warzycha can’t be too patient.
Against RSL, the Crew didn’t look much like the team that topped its Champions League group last fall; by contrast, RSL has changed little, and in the sense it has locked down the services of forwards Alvaro Saborio and Paulo Araujo and several other starters long-term, it looks better.
To prevail against a Mexican team, which RSL will face in the finals if it advances from the semis, it has acquired the same brand of Latin American and South American talent that fuels teams south of the border. The firepower Mexican teams stockpile, much of it from regional neighbors, is often the critical reason why MLS teams have been unable to advance at their expense in Concacaf.
A look at the RSL roster shows a deep pool of talent from near or south of the equator.
Morales and Fabian Espindola are Argentine, Saborio is Costa Rican, and Araujo is Brazilian. Also on board are Argentine outside back Nelson Gonzalez and the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, Colombian native Jamison Olave, who helped squelch the Crew attack despite the absence of regular partner Nat Borchers, who was suspended. Offseason acquisition Arturo Alvarez is a native of Houston with Salvadoran heritage.
By itself, a South American background doesn’t assure success in MLS. A day before the second leg, RSL cut Brazilian forward Pablo Campos. He won’t be missed. And quite influential against Columbus were Jamaican midfielder Andy Williams, Canadian Will Johnson, and the usual American contingent of Chris Wingert, Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, etc.
The potent blend of talents and abilities on the roster, which – along with the bracketing for the knockout rounds -- gives RSL the best chance of any MLS team to date of winning this competition. It can also benefit from the advantage of playing at altitude exploited by many Mexican teams against visitors from other nations, as well as a homefield advantage; the home semifinal, like the Rio Tinto quarterfinal, is part of a 20-game season ticket package, and a announced crowd of 15,405 braved cold weather and made a lot of noise Tuesday as RSL
rolled past Columbus.
Last year, the eight quarterfinalists were grouped so that the four Mexican entrants were separated, which set up the possibility of an all-Mexican final four, which became a reality. This year, Toluca and Monterrey met in the quarterfinals, and by winning Monterrey qualified for the semis against Cruz Azul, which toppled league rival Santos Laguna. RSL helped create that scenario by winning its group ahead of runner-up Cruz Azul.
Getting past Deportivo Saprissa, the former club of Saborio that reached the semis by beating Olimpia of Honduras, 3-1, on aggregate, is a stern test. Saprissa doesn’t have any foreign players but is well-stocked with Costa Rican internationals; Saborio left in 2006 at the age of 23 for Swiss club SC Sion, which eventually loaned him, and then sold him, to MLS and RSL.
RSL’s fate won’t be known until it plays Saprissa in the second leg April 5, but if it can advance, regardless of which Mexican foe emerges from the other side, it has much more than just a fighting chance to represent Concacaf at the World Club Cup in Tokyo next December.
It isn’t the best MLS team in league history, but it doesn’t have to be. All it has to do is get past two Concacaf opponents, of which it is certainly capable.
The altitude, the weather, the crowd, the officiating … maximizing these elements at home could enable RSL to go all the way. But what gives RSL real hope is its personnel – the players, its coaches, its staff, its support members -- and a belief that it can be the team to persevere where those before it have failed.