Real Salt Lake Advances to CCL Final

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.

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RSL Set for Massive CCL Date at Saprissa

Real Salt Lake has already made history as the first MLS team to reach the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Now, with a 2-0 first-leg victory under their belt, they head to the fearsome Estadio Saprissa, aka The Monster’s Cave, to try take the next step tonight (10:00 EST, Fox Soccer Channel).

All they have to do is avoid losing to Costa Rican hosts Deportivo Saprissa by three goals or more. They can even lose by two goals and advance, as long as they score an away goal.

It sounds manageable, but it won’t be easy: Estadio Saprissa has long been a place where the dreams of U.S.-based teams go to die. It’s an extremely intimidating venue, with the stands running right up to the field, and you can bet it will be rocking at full tilt tonight.

RSL coach Jason Kreis and goalkeeper Nick Rimando have both played there with with the U.S. national team. Here’s what they told The Salt Lake Tribune about the experience:

“Rimando recalled having coins thrown at him [during] a World Cup qualifier, and Kreis remembered “rocks being thrown at buses and bags of urine being thrown on the field” while playing there a couple of times with the U.S. national team.”

“Those sorts of things I think have been since cleaned up a little bit,” Kreis said, “so I don’t know if we’ll have to face that. But the crowd is right on top of you, and the stadium presents the feeling of being in a dangerous place.”

Sapriss and its fans are well aware of this element. A section of the stands, in fact, sits right above the visitors’ locker room, and fans see it as their duty to rock up and down to create the impression that the changing-room ceiling will cave in at any moment.

“Outside teams feel the pressure,” Saprissa defender Óscar Duarte told MLS Soccer.com.

“We hope the stadium will explode [with fan support],” Saprissa assistant coach Randall Low said. “The gringo teams, when they’ve been here, the support of the fans weighs on them and it’s a negative for them.”

But RSL midfielder Will Johnson was confident his team will not be affected by the environment: “We have a group of guys who are excited about the challenge instead of intimidated. With our experience and diversity in the squad I think the guys are relishing the opportunity to play in that stadium.”

All they need is a close result to make more MLS history with a berth in the CCL final, a two-leg championship scheduled for April 19 and 26.

Why Was Borchers’ Goal Called Back on Tuesday?

MLS fans had to love the way Real Salt Lake came out of the blocks in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against Saprissa on Tuesday night.

With the second leg set for the imposing “Monster’s Cave” next month, RSL knew a win at home was mandatory—and they played like it, right from the kickoff.

Only six minutes in, they found the back of the net on a great cross-and-finish by Fabian Espindola and Nat Borchers. But for some reason that still hasn’t been explained, the goal was waved off.

Borchers was not offside on the play, and he didn’t shove off the defender to win the header. If anything, the defender had a high boot near Borchers’ head.

It was a clean goal—as you can see below—yet it was disallowed. This might have thrown some teams off their game, but RSL didn’t even blink: They scored just three minutes later and went on to win 2-0.

Highlights here:

Great goals by RSL, especially Saborio’s opener. He got it off his feet so quickly with defenders crashing on either side. Goal-scorer’s goal.

The second leg is in San Jose on April 5.

Real Salt Lake to Visit the Purple Monster in CCL Semis

Real Salt Lake learned their opponent for the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League yesterday, and if they want to reach the tournament final, they’ll have to buck the odds and history.

That’s because they’ll face Costa Rican dynasty Saprissa, which knocked off Olimpia of Honduras 2-1 last night to advance, and which has lost just twice in 14 games against MLS competition.

Saprissa has eliminated MLS teams from the CCL knockout stages four times and boasts a 7-2-5 (w-l-t) record against teams from the U.S. circuit.

There’s that history, and then there’s the Costa Rican team’s fearsome home stadium—known as the Purple Monster or the Monster’s Cave—which has been especially inhospitable to MLS sides and the U.S. national team.

The Nats have never won there in seven tries—all losses—and MLS teams have also been shut out of W’s at Saprissa.

Salt Lake, of course, are not too shabby at home either, having gone unbeaten in 34 consecutive games at Rio Tinto Stadium. Additionally, they may have a useful spy in their midst, striker and designated player Alvaro Saborio, who played for Saprissa from 2001 to 2006.

RSL hosts the first leg on March 15, which is also the day Seattle and Los Angeles kick off the 2011 MLS season at Qwest Field.

The second leg is in San Jose on April 5. Here’s a little sample of the atmosphere that awaits visitors to El Monstruo Morado: