So with all respect to DC United and the Los Angeles Galaxy who both hosted and won the Champions Cup prior to CONCACAF starting the Champions League, the reality is that no MLS team has ever lifted the CCL trophy, in fact no team had made it to the semifinals or finals before Real Salt Lake. There are many reasons for this, timing of the tournament, limited rosters and payrolls in Major League Soccer, and competing priorities of resources (MLS Cup, US Open Cup, SuperLiga, and Supporters' Shield), but all of that leaves us to the high stakes match that will be played at 8pm MT Wednesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
A sold out crowd of mainly RSL supporters (over 15,000 tickets went to RSL season ticket holders, about 1,500 went to sponsors, and about 2,000 went to other RSL fans) and while a limited number of single seats and suites went on sale to the public, the reality for Monterrey fans is that unless they got their tickets on the secondary market, they probably didn't get them.
This means that the home team should have a huge advantage from the crowd, the RSL staff, coaches and players have asked the RSL fans to show up early, how early? As soon as the gates are open(7pm), to create a "Red Out' in the stadium of thousands of fans wearing red. It should be a sight tomorrow night as RSL will try to get a result that will allow them to lift the trophy on their home pitch.
more after the jump:
It was funny talking and listening to some of the bigger names that cover MLS and soccer in the United States today, as they compared notes and thoughts with the local guys who cover RSL even when the spotlight isn't on them. At practice on Tuesday there were more camera, more people, and more chaos than even what I experienced at MLS Cup in 2009. It truly was a media circus, and act two was Tuesday evening as Monterrey allowed the media in at the very tail end of their practice session. It was interesting to see, and I can't wait for the match to see where all these bodies locate themselves to get the best vantage point both on the pitch and from the press box.
All of the RSL players simply acted as if it was just another day of practice, and to be honest from the glimpses I caught of the Monterrey practice so did they. Yet for both teams this is a very highly desired trophy at stake and while RSL was pleased with the 2-2 draw at Monterrey, it is clear from comments to the media that looked to shift blame that Monterrey were not.
How will Real Salt Lake play, knowing that a draw of 0-0 or 1-1 is good enough to claim the trophy? I had to laugh when I heard those clearly unfamiliar with the RSL players or staff ask that question over and over again, each time it was answered with a simple "we play to win". I and the RSL fans that will be at the match, expect nothing less. There are two things that concern me a bit, first is that so many people assume this is a done deal, a lock, a sure win. I am sorry but nothing could be further from the truth and while RSL haven't lost a match at Rio Tinto in a very long time (37 matches in all competitions), Monterrey is a very good team that is looking to rebound as their season comes to an end.
Second, is that for Real Salt Lake the season is just staring, 4 league matches is all they have played and they have 30 matches left to go. The potential for a let down or for too much exuberance if they win are both realities, but ones that I believe would be short term at best. RSL is focused and determined, both on the match on Wednesday and on proving that they are also the best team in Major League Soccer. Owner Dave Checketts has made it clear that the team will be pursing the US Open Cup with full intention on winning it, as it represents the easiest path back to the Champions League.
The last two weeks have seen RSL get a flood of support and well wishes form around MLS, that all will end on Saturday when they head to Portland to face the Timbers. The pressure of having almost everyone proclaim you the banner carriers for the league, as well as soccer in the United States, is intense. Over and over you have heard people both within and outside the organization speak to what a win would mean, not only the trip to the World Club Cup, but some believe the ability to attract huge numbers of new fans to the league. I am not sure about that, but I do know that American sports fans love a winner, and that for soccer fans the rivalry between the United States and Mexico is very real.
This is a mighty load that has been put on their shoulders, yet watching them practice on Tuesday you would never know, yet talking to them you would never know. Oh they acknowledge the importance of the match and the relevance of what they have and could accomplish, I think all of them have adopted the attitude that head coach Jason Kreis mentioned on Saturday, that this is " a chance to pay back the fans for all their support, a way to say thank you for all they have given us".
I believe that what will happen on Wednesday night will be just the first in a line of exciting celebrations for this group of player who live the team motto "the team is the star", and it could be the start of something big for all soccer fans, but lifting that trophy at home would be a huge accomplishment for the team and their fans, not even two months into their season.
OFF MY SOAPBOX