Real Salt Lake faces Tigres on Wednesday in the biggest match for the team since 2013.
It's perhaps slightly rotten luck that the team is facing a real giant in Liga MX at the start, but if the team is going to win the whole thing, they at least have a stern test at the very beginning — if they can make it over this hurdle, they'll be stronger for it.
But let's be clear about it: Whether this was the final or the quarterfinal, this match was never going to be easy.
What do we know about this match? It's big, it'll be tough, and RSL still has a chance.
The magnitude of the match
Nobody ever wants to have to play the biggest game of their season at the start. This is no exception, but given the schedules of CONCACAF Champions League and Major League Soccer, there isn't much option right now.
We've been in a CCL quarterfinal only once before, and that was on our way to the final 2011. We've failed to make the knockout rounds once, too. (2012. That was truly disappointing.)
The difficulty of the match
There's a high degree of difficulty involved in this one, too — but by the same token, there are unknowns. We know, for instance, that Tigres have done very well at scoring goals consistently — seven games into the Clausura, they're scoring nearly two goals a game.
That's why Real Salt Lake fans are worried about the team's defense. Tigres have been held goalless only once in 2016, and that was in the season opener. They were held goalless only a few times in the Apertura, too. That's partly because they have an extremely potent goalscorer in Andre-Pierre Gignac.
Gignac, the goalscorer
Across seven games in 2016, Gignac has scored seven times. Now, he did score a hat trick in one game, a 3-1 beating of Leon, so don't take that to mean that he's certain to score in every game. He's not. Still, when he plays, he scores more often than not — in 8 of 15 games he played in the Apertura, he scored a goal.
But you know what he hasn't done? He hasn't scored a goal in CONCACAF Champions League. And as we know so well, there's a certain skill in crossing over into continental competition. In fact, the goalscorer hasn't scored in top-tier continental competition since the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League.
Obviously, that's not a fair comparison, and this isn't exactly a top-tier European-level competition, but it's at least something we can take away from our situation.
Rays of hope
Did you know that Tigres has already lost a match at home this season? They dropped 2-1 to Tijuana. They also lost their season opener 1-0 at Toluca, and they drew 2-2 at Chivas.
This is not an unbeatable team Real Salt Lake is facing. In fact, if 2016 has shown us anything, it's that they can be beat. It hasn't shown us that we can beat them, but you know, that's something we won't know until Wednesday and the one after.
Javier Aquino out for Tigres
Finally, one more ray of hope for Real Salt Lake: Tigres' very talented winger Javier Aquino is out of contention for this match, apparently because of tendonitis. While one player doesn't make up the gap between good team and great team, that they'll be missing one of their first-choice players — a good goalscorer in his own right, and an excellent dribbler — should give us at least some sort of positive feelings ahead of the match.
That doesn't change any of the previous concerns, of course. But Real Salt Lake has one more thing on their side we haven't really talked about much.
A redemption swan-song
This might the last year that Real Salt Lake's core trio — Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, and Javier Morales — all play together. They're an aging group, and there should be no surprise if Morales retires at the end of the year. This could be the last great chance they have to put their mark on American soccer history with a CONCACAF Champions League trophy.
While it's far too early to start hoping for that particular trophy, there is a motivation here that will be coursing through their veins. The motivation that is produced through disappointment, heartbreak and utter defeat is something that can't be reproduced, and it can't be taught.
Real Salt Lake are roundly described as no-hopers for this one, but that strikes me as premature. Redemption is still on the cards.