Since winning the 2009 MLS Cup as a darkhorse, Real Salt Lake has blossomed into Major League Soccer’s most balanced, stylish—and best—team.
Last night, they went to Estadio Saprissa—site of seven consecutive World Cup–qualifying losses for the U.S. national team—and got the result they needed to become the first MLS team ever to advance to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Right this way to the highlights:
RSL won the first leg 2-0, so the 2-1 result gave them a 3-2 aggregate victory. They’ll face either Cruz Azul or Monterrey—which play their second leg tonight—in the final on April 19 and 26.
A few comments on the highlights: How huge was Jamison Olave’s volley that made it 1-1? Arguably the biggest goal in RSL history. First, it was extremely well-taken—most players would’ve skied it well over the bar; Olave set his body perfectly for the strike and buried it with authority—and second, it provided a crucial response to Luis Cordero’s golazo that opened the second half for Saprissa.
That long-distance rocket got the fabled Monster’s Cave fans revved up to 1200 RPM, a development that would—and has—overwhelmed a lot of teams.
Instead of folding, RSL answered with Olave’s emphatic strike, which absolutely pulled the plug on the crowd and gave RSL enough of a cushion so that the 87th minute penalty was no big deal.
So RSL is going to the CCL final (and if they win that, to the FIFA Club World Cup in December), and MLS could not be better represented.
Last season, the Salt Lake side scored most goals of any team in the league (45) while giving up the fewest (20).
In Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales, they have arguably the best central midfield duo in the league. With Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio up top (and Paulo Jr. off the bench), their strike force is second to none in MLS—even Colorado’s. And the RSL backline features 2010 MLS Defender of the Year Olave and Nat Borchers, whose 2010 performance earned him a call-up to the U.S. national team.
Their core group has played together for several seasons now, and they’re a seasoned bunch, unlikely to be cowed by any circumstance, as they showed last night.
In addition to the players already mentioned, they have Duke alum Robbie Russell, a veteran of the UEFA Champions League, Jamaican international Andy Williams, who seems to be getting better with age, and Will Johnson, a steely 24-year-old Canadian midfielder who cut his teeth in the Blackburn Rovers youth team.
Best of all, they play a possession-oriented, attacking style and stick to it no matter the circumstances—as was the case in the late stages last night.
To protect his aggregate lead, coach Jason Kreis brought on not a destroyer (ie., a defensive midfielder or defender, as 99% of the world’s coaches would have done) but a creator, the skillful Houston native Arturo Alvarez.
It worked: Alvarez kept possession on several occasions up top, denying Saprissa the ball—without which, of course, they could not possibly threaten RSL’s lead. Under high-stakes pressure, Kreis was bold enough to stick to the notion that the best defense is a good offense.