With less than a month left to prepare, the air around Salt Lake is getting thicker and thicker by the minute. The Real Salt Lake community is preparing for the biggest match of 2016 thus far.
It’s a feeling many fans of the Claret-and-Cobalt have become accustom to, RSL to take on a larger club with vast more resources. Among the longtime supporters of the club many can remember the last time the franchise traveled to Mexico for a competitive match.
I was not among the supporters in Mexico, however, I was halfway around the world in Sweden watching a pirated stream on a 15-inch laptop screen. While the other residents of my apartment complex slept, I stared red-eyed and exhausted at the blue-light, although the sun had been up for hours in the far-northern country.
This is definitely not the most memorable moment in club history by a long shot, but a moment I, like many long-time fans, have likely recalled with the Los Tigres matchup just around the corner. Five and a half years ago, in a small, European-style flat, a loss that very much felt like a win roused feelings of unadulterated optimism – something the RSL community could use after a season like 2015.
The potential for the February 24 match in Mexico to revive these emotions is there, all RSL has to go and do is grab it. It seems like almost a yearly tradition at this point for the MLS brass and big mouth media outlets to start to write RSL off.
But this year, even before the season begins, the Claret-and-Cobalt can put this argument to bed early. Amidst the chattering, the unforgettable image of RSL players embracing one another after showing that the squad could score four goals in a single match on Mexican soil.
Drawing comparisons to the 2010 match in D.F., the RSL squad can, surely, uncover the formula that can lead to success in the land of street tacos and mariachi music.
It was their first competitive match in Mexico and the skies were opening up. With the Mexican rainy season in full swing, everything was bound to be soaked through by the end of the evening. Hours before game time, weather alerts for strong rain throughout the Mexican capital was issued and it definitely lived up to its potential.
Going into the Estadio Azteca the club knew the odds. It was no secret that no MLS team had every come to Mexico and secured a meaningful win. With a combined competitive 0-19-2 record, RSL were aware the cards were stacked against them but then head coach Jason Kreis sidelined the pundits saying in an interview with the Deseret News, "We came in wanting to win." Real came in with high hopes of changing the odds – and they very, very nearly did.
From the get go that RSL were doomed to continue the MLS winless streak. A mere 40 seconds into the match, Kyle Beckerman let off a rocket from distance only to have Cruz Azul goalkeeper Yosgart Gutierrez awkwardly parry the ball. Will Johnson, well in line with the last defender, put away the rebound but a phantom offside call nullified the goal.
Sitting there in front of my screen I couldn’t help but ponder the errors of CONCACAF officiating but I knew that, with the talent RSL was fielding, RSL would piece together additional chances.
It was Cruz Azul, though, that stuck next. Coming after yet another officiating error, Javier Orozco was played behind the RSL defense on a quickly taken free kick in which the ball never appeared to stop moving. The streaking run of the striker rounded goalkeeper Nick Rimando and easily slipped the ball into an open net. Happening only four minutes after the mysterious call on Johnson, the air was taken out of my lungs.
The skies then appeared to be empathizing with the Salt Lake fans as the heavens opened in what could be construed as pouring tears.
Within minutes the ground mimicked a marsh and players from both sides sloshed around in drenched kits. The ball began skidding cumbersomely across the turf. A shot from Cruz Azul was turned aside by the woodwork almost doubling the home side’s lead.
RSL then used the foul conditions to their advantage, drawing a penalty after Fabian Espindola was knocked down in the box. Alvaro Saborio converted from the spot to equalize in the 23rd minute.
Saborio would score again before halftime making it a 2-1 lead for the visitors.
Cruz Azul was noticeable frustrated going to the locker room. Gutierrez was barking at Horacio Cervantes, whose blunders lead to both RSL tallies. The head coach of the Mexican side also seemed agitated, but not at his players so much as the refereeing staff for the playing conditions.
The start of the second half was delayed 15 minutes as stadium workers struggled to clear the pitch of standing water. When play resumed, both sides slogged through difficult playing conditions.
While the officiating left its mark on the first half of the match, it was instead the lackluster play of the Claret-and-Cobalt that would ultimately lead to their undoing.
Securing another tally, RSL was riding high when Javier Morales was subbed out. Quickly the match changed for the MLS side as they lacked possession. Just like the matches in 2015 in which Morales was absent from the lineup, RSL replacements could not provide the quality that the veteran delivered.
By this time, I had worked myself into a fury. Why was Morales substituted? What was Kreis doing?
"I do think we got a little too comfortable [at 3-1] and thought that maybe it was going to be easy," Kreis said in a post-match interview with RSL.com. "We’ve seen it in our league before where, if we get a two-goal lead, the other team quits. And obviously there’s no quit in Cruz Azul."
The match then become more of a back-and-forth affair, resulting in five goals in the last 15 minutes of play. As the rain continued to pour, the flurry of goals skimmed the puddles, making the ability to link up all the more difficult.
"Steadily the rain just came and it wouldn’t let up," team skipper Kyle Beckerman recounted while standing there soaked in the post-match interview. "Both teams had to play in the stuff. I think we had some mental lapses and they made us pay for it. That’s all it came down to. We made them pay for some lapses as well, but they made us pay for one more than we did."
RSL has historically struggled to close out matches and this was more than evident against Cruz Azul. The absence of the Maestro caused RSL to suddenly be outside their comfort zone. The inability to hold onto a 3-1 second-half lead never came back to haunt Salt Lake advancing all the way to the final. Instead, it exposed the slight chink in the armor of many Mexican teams. RSL realized that an American team could quash the potent attack of Mexican sides through maintaining possession.
"The next time, if we get to play down here [Mexico] again, the confidence will be soaring," replied Beckerman, "We played one of the best teams in Mexico and took it to them for part of the game. We’ll take some positives from this and use this as a learning experience."
The keen skill shown by RSL players that night brought many fans immense joy, bring fans back to watch ever so more intently the CONCACAF Champions League. More than 20,000 people were in attendance when the Claret-and-Cobalt took to the pitch at Rio Tinto for the final. Supporting RSL through the competition, fans filled the stadium and once again this dream is attainable.
After finding a measure of redemption after being eliminated from the 2015 MLS postseason, RSL went into the offseason with something extra to focus on rather than the tough playoff exit. The momentum has permeated the team with members of the squad using words like "important," "crucial," and "defining," among others, during the 2016 media day to describe the coming matchup against Tigres.
The squad reiterated the promise of the upcoming quarterfinals reaffirming their focus during the past offseason leading many of the members to be more fit than they have ever been, in their own words.
"It means a lot to me personally, but the most important thing is for the players and for this club," head coach Jeff Cassar said at the close of last season to MLSsoccer.com. "It's an opportunity to keep going. When you're in the quarters, you're technically six games away from winning the championship."
With another shot at winning the title, the Claret-and-Cobalt remain focused on becoming the first club in Major League Soccer to win the continental championship. I can still remember watching RSL matches on the little screen halfway around the world, but this time, I plan to be with the countless fans supporting the club in person.