[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] With everything to play for, where better to play the "Purple Monster" than in "The Monster’s Cave?"
Since winning MLS Cup in November, 2009, Real Salt Lake has set its sights on the Concacaf Champions League as a measure of its players, its coaches, and its organization. On Tuesday (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel) it faces Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica in one of the region’s most intimidating venues holding a 2-0 lead with a spot in the finals at stake.
The advent of league play for the Concacaf tournament several years ago greatly devalued SuperLiga, in which MLS and Mexican teams squared off in a July and August competition. MLS has relaxed its financial constraints somewhat for teams competing in the Champions League to give them a better chance of success, and announced last week SuperLiga had been discontinued.
For the next few weeks, if it reaches the finals, Real Salt Lake -- not the Galaxy, not the Red Bulls, not even the USA -- will be America’s soccer team. If it can tie, or lose by no more than a goal, it advances to the finals against either Cruz Azul or Monterrey, which play the second leg of their all-Mexican League semifinal on Wednesday in Mexico City with Monterrey holding a 2-1 lead.
Messages of goodwill and encouragement are popping up on myriad soccer sites, including those of MLS rivals. “Based on all the supports we've received … from the league and fans of the entire league, we think it's a big deal and we don't take that responsibility lightly,” RSL coach Jason Kreis told the Salt Lake Tribune.
If a projected lineup released prior to the match is accurate, Kreis will not opt for the more defensive option in central midfield, Ned Grabavoy, alongside ballwinner and attacking catalyst Kyle Beckerman. Kreis may turn instead to veteran Andy Williams; he still spry at 33 and is normally preferred in home games, but his 15 years of professional experience include a few appearances for Jamaica against Costa Rica in La Cueva de Monstruo. Even if he doesn’t start, Williams is a potent weapon off the bench should his ability to hold the ball and find seams in opposing back lines be needed.
As the U.S. national team has discovered to its chagrin on numerous occasions, Costa Rican and Saprissa playmaker Walter Centeno is a handful. He sat out the weekend league match, a dour 0-0 tie with Cartagines, to rest his 36-year-old legs for what figures to be, shall we say, intense attention from Beckerman and Will Johnson, among others. He’s played in that other Champions League, the European version, for Greek team AEK Athens against foes like one of the other Reals, the one from Madrid.
Three Saprissa players – including Douglas Sequeira, who played for the Cobalt and Blue in 2006 – are suspended after picking up cautions in the first leg. Ricardo Blanco and Jesus Mena will also sit out. Another Costa Rican international, Gabriel Badilla, is a threat out of the back line, and forward Armando Alonso scored a goal in each leg of Saprissa’s 3-1 elimination of Honduran club Olimpia in the quarterfinals.
Saprissa has lost only once and won nine in its last 12 games. It qualified for the knockout stage last fall by finishing second in Group C behind Cruz Azul. Two of its three group wins came against Seattle: 2-0 at home, and 2-1 away. It is the only non-Mexican team to represent Concacaf in the World Club Cup, which it accomplished in 2005 with RSL forward Alvaro Saborio on its roster.
RSL players, which dug their cars out of Utah snowdrifts before flying to San Jose Sunday on a charter flight, have been luxuriating in the warmth and humidity of a Central American spring. Not coincidentally, RSL spent most of its preseason in Arizona to get players accustomed to warmer weather. It has braved cold weather in its CCL and league games to date, and beat San Jose, 1-0, in monsoon-like conditions March 19.
Saprissa’s attack normally features three forwards as well as Centeno and David Guzman coming forward from midfield. Relying on the 2-0 lead built on goals by Saborio and Fabian Espindola will be risky, so in addition to defensive shape and discipline, Kreis has stressed the importance of seizing opportunities to attack. The urgency to score may produce gaps RSL playmaker Javier Morales and his teammates can exploit.
Away goals are used as tiebreakers in regulation play only, so RSL could lose by two goals (3-1, 4-2, etc.) and still advance. It also progresses with a win, tie, or loss by a single goal. If Saprissa leads, 2-0, at the end of 90 minutes the teams will play a full 30 minutes of overtime, with penalties to follow if necessary. (No other scoreline can force overtime.) Saprissa can only advance automatically by winning by at least three goals; difficult against a team like RSL, which set an MLS record last year by conceding only 20 goals in 30 league matches, but certainly possible.
“The first goal is going to be huge,” said defender Chris Wingert to concacaf.com. “If they score first, the momentum will certainly be on their side and we’ll be in for a real battle, but if we are able to score first, we will be in a great position to advance.”
And that would be a notable achievement for RSL, and MLS.