There have been a few games where, long after the final whistle has sounded, I find myself sitting in my seat being told by CSC that I need to leave the stadium. It’s over, they say. It’s time to go, they chirp. I remember on this particular night watching Kyle hunched down on the field, dressed in jeans and a sport coat, consoling his friends after what was the most heart-breaking loss to that point in the club’s short history. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want that journey to end. It did, and RSL moved on to the next season, wins and losses, the next challenge, but the CONCACAF Champions League Final is one loss that I will never forget.
Take a step back from the final and look at the journey that started with MLS Cup 2009. A relatively new fan base was in a state of euphoria following that win. Seemingly impossible, RSL marched through the playoffs with a series of penalty kick shootout wins against teams that were "better" or "more experienced" (more expensive). After that win there was something new, something somewhat unfamiliar to most of the fanbase, myself included, CONCACAF. Most serious soccer fans are familiar with and follow UEFA Champions League or at least are aware of it and it’s implications in Europe. To have qualified for the equivalent in our region was massive. A chance to play against the best teams in the hemisphere? Yes, please.
A small group of us, all of whom had met on twitter, started getting together in basements and at bars to watch these CCL matches. It was the beginning of what has become the Wrecking Crew and a lot of Section 35. During those nights there were so many memorable moments, both in the games and amongst the group of us. Superstitions started, jokes were made, frantic goal celebrations had, a family was born. I think a lot of fans had that kind of experience during that first run. So unprecedented so full of magic, that stretch of play will forever mark the history of this club.
As memorable as that time was, there are a few games leading up to the final that stand out as something really special.
RSL v Cruz Azul, August 25, 2010
I don’t think that we’ll ever see a game quite like this one again. Yes, we lost. But what an amazing match. The rain was absolutely torrential and in games like that defenses get sloppy and keepers hands get slippery. No one thought that RSL would stand any chance against a club like Cruz Azul in their home stadium, and yet, 4 away goals.
RSL v Saprissa, April 5, 2011
I was on pins and needles this whole match. Again, RSL didn’t stand a chance against Saprissa at their place. El Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, nicknamed the monster’s cave, is notorious for a couple of things. 1) A terrible playing surface and, 2) insane supporters. It was a daunting task and a match that RSL needed a good result in to advance to the finals. We needed a goal, we needed to not lose by 2, and a win would have been really nice. Saprissa struck first, a dagger from distance. Then 61 minutes in Olave scored a goal that will be the thing of legend for years and I don’t think I’ve ever screamed louder in my life.
We’d done it. On to the final. From the beginning, again, it was a seemingly insurmountable hill to climb as Monterrey was supposedly unbeatable. Leading up to the match in Monterrey there was a building momentum that seemed to emanate from the club and the fans as a whole. Things were falling in our favor. Everything was coming up RSL, as it were.
In that game two things mattered:
Javier bringing us level put the air back into the room. We needed it.
Kyle getting a yellow took it right back out. This would mean that he would not be available for the final. Collectively, RSL fans everywhere let out an "ugh".
I’ll skip all the emotional stuff and conjecture about the final. Sure, Kyle would have made it a different game. Yes, we are cursed, probably.
What happened that night was something special. If you weren’t there, I hope that one day soon RSL make another CCL final and the last leg is at home. The stadium was absolutely buzzing. It was one of the first matches I had been to where the whole stadium chanted, in unison, for long stretches at a time. The noise was so loud that I remember Jason Kreis commenting that the walls of the locker room seemed to resonate with the sound from the chants and songs. Every moment of that game was different and special, and incredibly painful.
What’s interesting to me is the feeling after that match; through all the disappointment and despair (so much for none of the emotional stuff) there was the want and even the need to get back there, as quickly as possible.
I’ll admit it, I’m a little selfish about this one. I want to get back there and win it before anyone else in MLS even comes close. I want to be that small market team that stands up with the big spenders. There was a time when I wanted the mantra of "The team is the Star" to shine (really, jake?) through as the method that works.
We find ourselves in a much different situation this go around, but the possibility still exists for this to be another unprecedented run. In 2010 we were a team with momentum, on the rise, and on a streak. This year we are in need of a reason, in need of a boost, a refining fire. CCL could be all of that this year. We will see what we are truly made of against a team like Tigres. This is the true measure of a team in our region. MLS Cup, the US Open Cup, and the Supporters Shield are all very cool, but this is the apex of accomplishment in CONCACAF. We’ve waited for 5 years to get here again, and it’s about time.