MLS’s CCL Dream Deferred Yet Again

A team from Major League Soccer will win the CONCACAF Champions League some day. Just not this year.

After Seattle went out to Santos Laguna in a 1-1 second-leg draw on Tuesday night, the LA Galaxy represented MLS’s last hope for a 2013 CCL finalist. Their task was nearly identical to the one Seattle faced on Tuesday: They were playing on the road in Mexico, and they trailed by a goal after the first leg. Indeed, the Galaxy’s degree of difficulty was slightly higher, since Monterrey had scored two away goals in their first-leg win at Los Angeles.

Bruce Arena’s side had been 10 minutes away from taking a 1-0 win down to Mexico for the second leg when the visitors’ two biggest threats, Mexican striker Aldo De Nigris and his Chilean counterpart Humberto Suazo, each struck in the waning moments to send LA to a severely deflating loss. But the Galaxy have Robbie Keane and Juninho and a rounding-into-form Landon Donovan, and their fans had hopes that they could bag the two goals needed in the return match to either win the tie outright or send it into extra time.

LA generated some chances, but Monterrey ultimately showed why they’re the two-time defending champs. Highlights here:

Real Salt Lake’s narrow loss to Monterrey in the 2011 final is looking like a bigger missed opportunity with each passing year. Jason Kreis’s team got a 2-2 draw on the road in the first leg that year, only to fall 1-0 at home in front of an amped-up crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium. Ouch.

Monterrey and Santos Laguna will meet for the trophy in a rematch of last year’s final. The two-leg decider is set for April 24 and May 1.

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Real Salt Lake Falls Short: 15-Month CCL Effort Ends in Massive Disappointment

Real Salt Lake’s 37-match home unbeaten streak came to an end at the worst possible time.

Last night, the reigning Mexican champions Monterrey came in to Rio Tinto for the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final and did what no team has been able to do there for two years: beat the hosts.

Humberto Suazo‘s 46th-minute goal stood up for a 1–0 win that gave Monterrey the CCL crown 3–2 on aggregate and denied the 2009 MLS champions what would have been a historic berth in the FIFA Club World Cup.

It also tripped up Real Salt Lake at the very last step of a  journey they began soon after winning that ’09 MLS crown, when they made it a club priority to win the CONCACAF Champions League and advance to the CWC.

Speaking to The Salt Lake Tribune, coach Jason Kreis called it “a major, major disappointment,” and “a huge, huge opportunity gone missing.”

Highlights here:

While RSL certainly missed captain Kyle Beckerman, who was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, they can’t pin the loss solely on his absence.

The MLS side never found its rhythm, never was able to impose its ‘RSL’ possession game on the visitors. And while much credit should go to those visitors for disrupting the hosts, Salt Lake was a little flat, and lacked the poise needed for the occasion.

Second half substitute Arturo Alvarez—who’d helped RSL secure the draw in the first leg with some great set-up work on Javier Morales’s equalizer—was particularly poor last night. He gave the ball away on three consecutive occasions while under minimal pressure in the offensive third.

Right back Tony Beltran, also a second-half sub, had similar troubles with unforced errors. He made a play around the 72nd minute that typified RSL’s lack of poise and concentration on the night.

With the ball at his feet, about 15-20 yards of space in front of him, and passing options to either side, Beltran humped the ball aimlessly forward, where it was picked up by a Monterrey midfielder.

Panic ball? Concentration lapse? Hard to say, but it was a terrible turnover in a game too full of them, especially for RSL.

Both Suazo’s goal and the buildup that created it were excellent, but all in all, the game was a scrappy, cagey affair, with plenty of mistakes and without a lot of fluidity.

Salt Lake did generate some chances to equalize, but couldn’t convert any of them, and will now have to bounce back for MLS play after seeing nearly two years of hard work and effort evaporate in 90 minutes.

Real Salt Lake Poised to Plant MLS Flag on CONCACAF Region

Here is Fox Soccer’s Christian Miles on tonight’s clash between Real Salt Lake and Monterrey in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final (10:00 EST, Fox Soccer Channel):

This game is massive for MLS. It’s probably the biggest game that the league has ever seen, and winning this would literally put the league on the map. … Getting to the Club World Cup [which tonight’s winner will do] is the next step that MLS has to take to gain international legitimacy. People overseas don’t think that Americans take this sport seriously, and as a result don’t always take MLS as seriously as they should. Getting to Japan would be a massive step towards changing that.”

And here’s RSL general manager and former MLS keeper Garth Lagerway [via Daily Breeze]:

If you’re going to talk about the long-term future of the league, you need people who are fans of soccer in the United States to pay attention to our league. … A lot of those people are going to deny, deny, deny, and say, ‘I’d rather get up on Saturday morning to watch the EPL, and American soccer sucks.’ I think we’re going to win over a whole bunch of fans who simply can’t ignore us if we’re able to win and achieve consistent success. … I think we have an event [here] [of the scale] to put the world on notice that American soccer has taken another step forward.

For a team that’s only been in existence since 2005—and that operates under MLS’s strict salary cap—winning the 24-team CCL (as opposed to the eight-team CONCACAF Champions Cup, which DC and LA won, in 1998 and 2000, respectively) would be a significant accomplishment.

Monterrey, by contrast, was founded in 1945 and has a salary budget estimated at three to five times larger than Real Salt Lake’s $2.675 million.

Just getting to this point has been a feat of resource- and team-management. As Soccer America’s RidgeMahoney put it:

As a team, RSL’s advancement to the brink of a regional club title is a study in smart tactics and intelligent deployment of talented personnel. As an organization, its management of limited resources to succeed against richer clubs may be an even greater accomplishment, and a challenge to its league foes.”

On to the game:

With two away goals in the first leg (a 2-2 draw), Real Salt Lake is in the driver’s seat. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw tonight would deliver the CCL title to the Claret-and-Cobalt.

Some other encouraging factors for the hosts:

• RSL has an impressive 37-match unbeaten streak at Rio Tinto Stadium.

• As of this writing, the temperature in Salt Lake (or nearby Sandy, home of Rio Tinto Stadium) is 36 degrees—almost 60 degrees cooler than it was in Monterrey last Wednesday. It’s expected to rise before kickoff, but the weather could put Monterrey out of their comfort zone. They’ll also have to contend with the altitude in Sandy (4,500 ft).

• Monterrey coach Víctor Manuel Vucetich provided some bulletin-board material for RSL, saying the following after the first leg [via MLSSoccer]:

It was a real good game by us. We did enough to win the game. We gave the effort. We made the game. We also made a few errors. But nonetheless, it makes me feel good to know how Salt Lake plays…. They played the game they wanted. They dirtied the game a lot. But that’s normal. We know exactly what their movements are and what their characteristics are. With the way we played today, we’re confident of getting a good result over there [at Rio Tinto].”

On the downside for RSL, captain and holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman will sit this one out due to yellow-card accumulation (following a questionable booking in the first leg).

Look for Ned Grabavoy or Will Johnson to take Beckerman’s place in the middle (or, possibly, the rugged Jean Alexandre).

The team has coped without Beckerman in the past—and coped well, going 7-0-3—but it’s still a big blow.

(Monterrey have roster issues of their own—striker Aldo De Nigris and captain Luis Perez are both out injured. De Nigris is also suspended due to card accumulation, so he couldn’t play even if he were healthy. … But Chilean superstar Humberto Suazo and Argentine international Neri Cardozo will be present and accounted for.)

Lastly, we’d submit that given all the hype surrounding their accomplishments thus far, the great result in Monterrey, and the return to the comforts of their home stadium, Real Salt Lake have to guard against complacency.

They haven’t won anything yet.

They still have to do the business tonight, against a dangerous team that surely does not want to be a footnote in MLS history.

CCL Final, First Leg: Real Salt Lake Beats Monterrey 2-2

Of course that’s a bit of humor in the headline up there, but this result is just about as good as a win: Real Salt Lake went down to Monterrey and scored not one but two away goals, the second of which came in the 89th minute through a moment of brilliance from Javier Morales.

The Argentine playmaker’s strike put the teams on level terms in the total-goals series as they head to the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium, where Real Salt Lake is unbeaten in its last 37 games.

Highlights:

The visitors started out brightly, possessing the ball and taking it to Monterrey for the first 15 minutes. The first goal was somewhat against the run of play, and Nat Borchers‘ excellent equalizer was well deserved for RSL.

In the second half, either because of fatigue—it was 90+ degrees—or a tactical decision to sit back and play for a draw (or both), Real Salt Lake were on their heels for most of the time. They absorbed a lot of pressure and had trouble maintaining any kind of possession. The penalty call may have been iffy, but a goal for the Mexican champions at that point was not surprising or against the grain of the game.

But Real Salt Lake hung in, absorbed more pressure, and remained standing, with a puncher’s chance of scoring a draw in the closing minutes. That’s when Morales, picking up a ball from late sub Arturo Alvarez, worked his magic.

The only downside of the incredible night was captain Kyle Beckerman getting an undeserved yellow that will keep him out of the second leg.

Here’s Morales in Sports Illustrated this week, talking about RSL’s style:

“We have a style that I would call mixed between American and Latin, a new style. We work very hard in the American way, and we have a Latin game where we try to take care of the ball.”

He hit the nail on the head, and that style is embodied in the central midfield pairing of the skillful Latin Morales and the athletic, hard-working American Beckerman.

They’ll miss their captain next week, for sure, but with their depth and the fantastic support at Rio Tinto, Real Salt Lake is still very much in the driver’s seat, ready to make history.

Real Salt Lake Looks to Buck History, Odds In CCL Final Tonight

Real Salt Lake takes on Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final tonight (10:00 EST, Fox Soccer Channel), aiming to become the first MLS team to win the competition as it’s currently structured.

They face a tall task on several fronts.

• Monterrey, the defending Mexican league champions, boast Chilean superstar Humberto Suazo, Argentine playmaker Neri Cardozo, and Mexican international Aldo De Nigris. They are a seasoned team with no shortage of international experience.

• The temperature at kickoff is expected to be well into the 90s with a chance of cracking triple digits. RSL is coming from Salt Lake City, where there was snow last week.

• MLS teams have played 21 competitive games in Mexico in recent years without winning one. They’ve gone 0-19-2 in that span.

The second leg is next Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium (where RSL is unbeaten in 37 consecutive games). If Real Salt Lake can win the total-goals series, they would become the first MLS team ever to clinch a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup. This year’s edition of the CWC is set for December 8-18 in Japan.

There’s a lot at stake, a difficult opponent, a dubious field (why are there American-football lines on a pitch in Mexico?), and potentially brutal weather conditions.

Are Jason Kreis’s men up for the challenge? We’ll find out tonight, when the entire league will be pulling for RSL as it carries the MLS flag.