Painted on the walls of Rio Tinto, there is a mosaic of sorts. The mosaic depicts absolute elation on the faces of Real Salt Lake legends, including Captain Kyle Beckerman, Robbie Findley, and Nat Borchers. The picture is from the moment when Robbie Russell scored the penalty that won the Claret-and-Cobalt the 2009 MLS Cup. And there is a phrase that embodies the club stenciled across it. It reads: THE TEAM IS THE STAR.
This moment opened the door for the club’s historic first run into the CONCACAF Champions League. A run that was filled with ups and downs ended with a heart-wrenching defeat at the hands of Mexican club Monterrey. Now deep into yet another quest to capture the elusive — at least for MLS sides — CONCACAF trophy, RSL are poised to take on the tournament favorites, Tigres UANL, another Monterrey, Mexico based club.
Like many MLS squads, the Claret-and-Cobalt have a relatively short resume compared to Liga MX clubs. Right away, however, MLS clubs have shown their potential. Despite Liga MX relying on a more star studded, MLS thrives under ‘the team is the star’ mantra. The Claret-and-Cobalt may have adopted the slogan, but many MLS squads that go deep into the North American tournament follow RSL’s philosophy.
When boiled down, chemistry is at the center of RSL’s philosophy. It is a matter of how players interact on and off the pitch; in the locker room the squad has to be close and all in it together. It has been the model for the club’s sustained style and its formula for success. But with one look at the team sheet, it is hard to argue against the individual talent of the players.
The defensive spine is supported by U.S. internationals Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran and Kyle Beckerman. Each of these players hold an impressive pedigree, but they are also leaders that organize and tutor young talent. Rimando holds the league record for shutouts (123) and Beckerman has played the most minutes of any field player in the league, along with the ironman work-ethic of Beltran, who has played more minutes than any other player for RSL in recent years, the club has a strong defensive spine.
But they are not alone in international experience with Demar Phillips of Jamaica, Stephen Obayan Sunny of Nigeria, and if we are to believe the reports, Jerry Akaminko of Ghana. These players also add to the talent in the defense, and all have been capped for their respected national teams, demonstrating they have the skills to be international contenders. And while Jamison Olave does not have the international experience of the others, he remains an eight-year veteran of the league.
Further up the pitch, RSL wields a deadly attacking quartet. Pulling the strings of the attack are the crafty Argentines Javier Morales and Juan "El Burrito" Manuel Martínez. While Morales is the midfield maestro, El Burrito is the trequartista out wide. Joao Plata also plays a role of speedster cutting the ball into danger spots and getting behind the defense. All three, therefore, create the scoring opportunities in which the clinical Yura Movsisyan prospers rounding out the Starting XI.
But the talent doesn’t end there for the Claret-and-Cobalt. Salt Lake is stacked with talent and increased depth. Veterans Chris Wingert and Jeff Attinella provide their voices in the locker rooms and mentor the plethora of young talent on the team. Specifically the work of speedster Olmes Garcia cannot be overlooked – showing his propensity to score goals during RSL’s 10-man draw against New England yesterday.
When you look at the squad’s impact players, it is hard to bet against the likes of Real Salt Lake. Players like Jordan Allen and Luke Mulholland might have the last word down the stretch run in CONCACAF Champions League play against the superstars of Liga MX. Not to neglect the talent of current Apertura champions Tigres UANL, but plenty of stars make up the money-smart RSL squad.
While the tournament MVP so far Andre-Pierre Gignac will be a handful for the defense, the Torneo Clausura has not been as kind to Tigres. Coming off a tough 1-2 defeat to Tijuana, UANL look to be suffering from a bit of an early season slump. They did not look as sharp as in weeks past and even fell victim to a scuffle just before the halftime whistle, but they will look to right the ship in the final league match before their CCL quarterfinal appearance.
If RSL can use the momentum they have after earning a hard-fought 3-3 draw against the Revolution, and Tigres continue to slump, RSL might have a chance of snagging all three points in Mexico. Even if they don’t secure a win, a draw would feel like a win for the Claret-and-Cobalt as they would field an advantage going into home turf.
The cards stacked against them but RSL has everything to play for. While on paper, Tigres seem to be the better squad, RSL’s spirit and talent have carried them far before and this is no different. With both the team as the star and the stars that make up the team, RSL could string together a play or two that would advance the squad one more step towards winning the CONCACAF Champions League trophy.