[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Artificial turf, tough opponents, and a hostile atmosphere werent enough to defeat an MLS team that didn't exist just seven years ago.
A Jamison Olave goal provided enough of a margin for Real Salt Lake – which rose from expansion status in 2005 to win the league title two years ago -- to survive the second leg of their Concacaf Champions’ League semifinal in Costa Rica and become the first MLS team to reach the final since the 2000 when it was known as the Concacaf Champions Cup. (Los Angeles beat Honduras' Olimpia in 2000.)
With a 2-1 loss to Deportivo Saprissa in San Jose Tuesday, RSL prevailed, 3-2, on aggregate and in the finals will face either Monterrey or Cruz Azul, which play the second leg of their semifinal Wednesday in Mexico City. The winning Mexican team will host the first leg of finals April 19, with the second match in Rio Tinto Stadium to be played April 26.
Olave’s goal in the 61st minute, with RSL trailing, 1-0, utterly deflated the Saprissa players as well as their fans and was enough to offset Saprissa goals by Luis Cordero and a late penalty kick by Alonso Solis.
A thunderous roar had greeted Cordero’s goal shortly after halftime, and for about 15 minutes the stadium known as “The Monster’s Cave” rocked and shook. Chants and drums reverberated in anticipation of a second goal that would have tied the series, 2-2, on aggregate.
Saprissa carved out a couple of decent looks late in the first half but misfired on both. In the 38th minute a knockdown bounced a ball to Josue Martinez, who fired over the bar from 16 yards out. A few minutes later, Jairo Arrieta turned inside right back Robbie Russell to strike a low shot that skipped a yard wide of the post.
By pressing their opponents in midfield and using the skill of Andy Williams to retain possession, RSL blotted out Saprissa repeatedly in the first half. Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson bottled up playmaker Walter Centeno, Russell and left back Chris Wingert were seldom breached, and both central defenders were tough in the air and sharp on the ground. RSL did an excellent job of closing down space in the middle during the first 45 minutes, which forced Saprissa out to the flanks, and also got forward to provide a few threatening moves.
RSL nearly broke through in the 27th minute, when Williams cleverly evaded tackles near the penalty arc and slipped a ball through that Beckerman blasted on goal. Saprissa keeper Victor Bolivar stabbed out his right glove to deflect it for a corner. Bolivar rescued his team again in the 44th minute when he dived to his left to turn away a sharp, bouncing header by Saborio from a Morales corner kick.
Less than a minute into the second half, Saprissa ratched up the pressure on the MLS representative by getting on the board. Cordero collected a pass with his right foot while moving left to get away from Johnson and with a second touch belted a left-footer from about 25 yards that whistled over Nick Rimando’s leap just under the crossbar.
Nervousness plagued RSL in the aftermath of conceding that goal. Clearances and passes lacked the polish and precision inherent in the first half. An Olave giveaway provided Arrieta with a ball he served threateningly across the goalmouth, but a few minutes later, the 2010 MLS Defender of the Year provided an essential slice of offense.
Olave reacted quickest when Saprissa couldn’t clear a Morales outswinging corner kick. Nat Borchers’ header on frame struck a Saprissa defender six yards from goal, and before the ball could fall to the ground, Olave swung his right foot waist-high to volley an unstoppable shot past Bolivar.
Saprissa brought in substitute Allan Aleman, whose teammates sluggishly responded to his brazen confidence. The crowd had quieted, the energy dissipated. Aleman drove into the attacking third repeatedly and finally got some reward in the final minutes. A late tackle by another sub, Ned Grabavoy, provided a penalty kick that Solis, who had just replaced Centeno, drove under Rimando’s full-length lunge.
Saprissa still needed two goals, because Olave’s away goal would have been the tiebreaker in case the aggregate increased to 3-3. RSL stayed cool, played out the final minutes, and to a man, the players thrust their arms into the air defiantly at the final whistle. They hadn't won the game, yet they conquered the Purple Monster in its cave.
In the year that the American and Mexican leagues discontinued a contrived competition, the SuperLiga, their representatives will contest the Concacaf slot at the World Club Cup in Japan next December.
Concacaf Champions League semifinals, second leg
Deportivo Saprissa 2, Real Salt Lake 1. (aggregate: 2-3).
Goals: Centeno 46, Solis 87 (penalty kick); Olave 61.
Real Salt Lake – Rimando; Russell, Olave, Borchers, Wingert, Johnson, Beckerman, Williams (Grabavoy, 58), Morales, Espindola (Alvarez, 79), Saborio.
Deportivo Saprissa – Bolivar; V. Cordero, Duarte, Wong, Phillip (Alemán, 63), Guzman, Centeno (Solis, 86), L. Cordero, Martinez (A. Sequeira, 70), Arrieta, Alonso.
Referee: Marco Rodriguez.