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Real Salt Lake, CONCACAF Champions League in 2010, and group stage glory

A year after winning MLS Cup, Real Salt Lake was vying for a continental championship. In doing so, they transformed the club and the city.

Cruz Azui v Real Salt Lake Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

This is the first in a two-part series chronicling Real Salt Lake’s 2010–11 CONCACAF Champions League campaign.

After five seasons, Real Salt Lake won MLS Cup. After six, they progressed from the CONCACAF Champions League group stage in spectacular fashion, facing a barrage of challenges along the way and fundamentally altering the measure of success in the club and in MLS.

In 2010 and 2011, Real Salt Lake made it further than any other U.S.-based club had in CONCACAF Champions League history in the continental tournament when they squeaked into the final on the back of a number of good performances, some true grit, and an immense amount of character. No, the club didn’t win it, but they came within inches.

From the group stage forward, Real Salt Lake’s path wasn’t really clear-cut. They’d just come off of an intense 2010 season that saw them impressing consistently, and that was a real story after they won MLS Cup in 2009 on the back of penalties in consecutive stages of the tournament.

In a group with Cruz Azul, Toronto FC, and — we collectively shudder thinking about this one, I’m sure — Arabe Unido, RSL somehow made it out on top of their group. Monumental? Perhaps, but it had only just begun.

The group stage: Scraping out a win over Arabe Unido

In the club’s first-ever CONCACAF Champions League match, it only took 13 minutes for the whole thing to turn upside down. A freak own goal from Nat Borchers beat Nick Rimando after the defender tried to block a shot, and there was a big hill to climb. Without a win against a team many considered the easiest team in the group, things looked dreary. A 29th minute red card for Arabe Unido’s Nahil Carroll for a tackle on Kyle Beckerman should have made it an easier task, but red cards rarely do exactly what we’d expect them to.

What followed seemed unlucky. Jamison Olave hit the post, with his headed shot being kept from leveling the score between the two sides. Javier Morales had a free kick just saved. Chances came, and it took a deep cross from Chris Wingert that fed Alvaro Saborio to bring RSL back into contention. It remained deadlocked, though, for far too long to be comfortable. In the 94th minute, Saborio struck again — but this time from the spot, an opportunity he was only afforded after Morales was blocked off in the box.

The group stage: The Battle of Cruz Azul

One of the best reminders we can have about the nature of soccer is that no matter how crushing the blow, a battle is just that — it’s not the end-all, be-all. In August, Real Salt Lake traveled to face Cruz Azul, and they did so with a side we’d probably describe now as weakend. It featured Nelson Gonzalez and Rauwshan McKenzie, neither of whom would go on to feature as regulars in MLS.

Again, it took only minutes for this one to be turned on its head. Five minutes in, RSL was down, having been beaten on a counterattack. But again, it was a penalty later in the half that rescued something, and again, it was Alvaro Saborio putting it away.

Here’s a fun thing to note: If you’re watching the highlights, look at the ground before the penalty, then look at the ground after. The field wasn’t just soaked — it quickly became a puddle-filled mess. And then, miraculously, we took a lead. In Mexico. It was, as they say, a Big Deal. Sure, the dismal state of the pitch helped, and Saborio’s knack for finding a goal helped, too — but it was a huge accomplishment.

Of course, we then lost the lead in the second half, tied the game up in stoppage time, and lost the game in the 93rd minute. Maybe it was the best lesson we could have learned in the group stage while losing: Concentration, as always, is key, and if you don’t have it, you’ll never get to the next level. It was a harsh way to learn that lesson. Watching Will Johnson slide across the puddled pitch in a stoppage-time celebration genuinely hurts when you know what comes next.

The group stage soldiers on

The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least, that’s what I’ve been told, and it seems like that’s true for Real Salt Lake’s 2010. It’s either some statement about the incredible character of the side, or it’s a castigation of their match-preparedness, but Real Salt Lake — again — went down 1-0 in the early minutes of a group stage match. It happened this time against Toronto FC, when Maicon scored in the ninth minute. We won that match — a home game — 4-1. It wasn’t all bad.

But that win didn’t really teach us a lesson. In the second minute of our second match against Arabe Unido, we — yeah — went down 1-0. We won that one, too, but we made it hard on ourselves once again. A 3-2 victory was enough to look like favorites to clear the group stage.

As a side note, this match also includes one of the best-ever Nick Rimando saves. He picks the ball out in the air with both hands mere millimeters before it crossed the goal line.

Another match, another early conceded goal. This one came in the 20th minute, so the severity was perhaps lessened — but still, you hate this sort of thing, right? Real Salt Lake drew this one, 1-1. This match determined RSL’s quarterfinal berth, which was huge for us. We were still fairly new as a club, and while we’d experienced some great glory in the past, this had the potential to be on a completely new level. And, frankly, it was.

The group stage: The Battle of Cruz Azul at Rio Tinto

With qualification secured, we somehow managed to not concede an early goal, and in doing so, Real Salt Lake controlled — legitimately — a big match. Of course, we made this one hard on ourselves, too — we have a knack for that — when Pablo Campos missed a first-half penalty.

Paulo Junior came back to pull in a goal for RSL, and it finally clicked. We went two goals ahead, again through Paulo, then three — and then, despite giving up one of our own, we won.

Interestingly, this match also featured Will Johnson in at left back for his first time. That later became a hallmark of his play, that flexibility.

Real Salt Lake was one of only two teams to finish atop their group while the Champions League was structured with four-team groups. It was only a few years into the Champions League iteration, but Real Salt Lake showed MLS sides that success was possible, even against Mexican teams.

Before that, those top-level Mexican clubs participating in CONCACAF presented tremendous opposition. Even now, you need only think back to RSL’s match against Tigres, featuring perhaps the best European striker not playing in Europe, to see how massive matches between clubs from the two nations.

With its success in 2010, Real Salt Lake set a new bar. That bar wasn’t just there for MLS teams, it was there for themselves, and the success they worked for remains an ongoing measure.

Of the players who were involved in that Champions League group stage, only a handful remain with the club in a playing capacity: Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, Nick Rimando, Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert. David Horst has rejoined the club, but he only made one appearance in 2010. Jamison Olave and Andy Williams both remain at the club in non-playing capacities.

But no matter how long they remained with Real Salt Lake, every player who touched the field in CONCACAF made an impact. From Paulo Junior, the hot goalscorer who we were all convinced was the next big thing, to Nelson Gonzalez, the Argentine left-winger who left in 2011 — and lest we forget players like Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales, who took the tournament with both hands and never let go.

Check back for the second part in this series chronicling Real Salt Lake’s CONCACAF Champions League run of 2010–11.