This was the biggest game in Real Salt Lake history.
Without a doubt - by far.
Sure, other US teams had won an earlier version of the Concacaf Champions Cup, but the competition was much different - played entirely in the US, and over a short period of time. But in 2008 the Confederation restructured the competition into something much more challenging.
To date (2021) no team outside of Mexico has won the CCL, and only 4 MLS teams have made it to the final. Liga MX teams have won the competition every. single. year. And most years it hasn’t even been close for MLS teams. Toronto FC would be the next closest losing in a PK shootout in 2018.
Real Salt Lake was the first team to show Major League Soccer that it WAS possible. At the time RSL was even the highest internationally ranked team from the US, holding our own with the Mexican giants! We were the first team to win a Champions League Group, and we came oh sooooo close to winning it all.
April 20th, 2011 CF Monterrey vs Real Salt Lake
RSL was on the road in Mexico for the first leg. At the time no MLS team had ever won a Champions League match in Mexico, though RSL had come extremely close in the group stage vs Cruz Azul. All of MLS was behind RSL - #MLS4RSL had started trending on social media, and finally went viral leading up to the final.
RSL came from behind twice to equalize, and set up an epic showdown. Here’s the official recap from RSL media:
Real Salt Lake showed its veteran mettle in front of a boisterous crowd of 31,000 at Estadio Tecnológico, first leveling the match in the 35th minute via a crisp header by DF Nat Borchers, which cancelled out Monterrey FW Aldo De Nigris’ opening salvo in the 17th minute. After Rayados FW Humberto Suazo converted from the penalty spot in the 63rd minute, RSL would grind through many a nervous moment before Morales side-stepped a defender and sent a right-footed shot just inside the far left post to even up the proceedings, sending the series into its weeklong “halftime” at 2-2.
April 27th, 2011 Real Salt Lake vs CF Monterrey
2nd leg and the pressure was on. RSL and Philadelphia Union had agreed to postpone their match (scheduled for the 23rd) to give RSL more time to prepare. Both teams would be missing major players due to yellow card accumulation; the 1st leg goalscorer Aldo de Nigris for Monterrey, and team captain Kyle Beckerman for RSL.
RSL would need only a 0-0, or 1-1 draw to become the first MLS team to win the 3 year old tournament. This was the league’s first hope of winning the Continental Championship. Monterrey had everything to lose. RSL fans felt like this was it, we could win it - after all Rio Tinto Stadium was a literal fortress - we hadn’t lost a game there in ALL of 2010 - a run of 37 games across all competitions!
RSL started strong with strikes by Fabian Espindola; one that the goalkeeper saved and a second that went just wide, but RSL continued to apply pressure and it seemed inevitable that we would eventually get a goal.
Then Humberto Suazo scored just before halftime. OK, that sucks... but we still have 45 minutes. We can surely get one goal to equalize and win this! RSL took shot after shot - RSL would officially end up with 20, and only 4 on goal (though it certainly looked and seemed like a LOT more...).
But the Monterrey keeper Jonathan Orozco would somehow keep the ball out of the net.
As fans, we were stunned. Devastated as if everything had just collapsed around us. And worst of all we had to watch as another team received the trophy in OUR home.
I’ll never forget that night, it was to this day, the worst sporting night of my life. Worse than even MLS Cup 2013, or the Jazz losing to the Bulls in the finals.
I had to watch from section 35 in utter dejection, as our players laid on the field crying, our Captain dressed up in a suit, consoling his friends whom he couldn’t play with due to suspension, while beer rained down from the away section overhead.
I think it took me an hour to leave the stadium that night. I just sat in my chair, numb. I think the hardest part was that I was so emotionally invested in that game, and so utterly crushed when we lost, that it took me well into the later part of that summer to watch another RSL game. I had season tickets and I just stopped going. It was almost like I needed to grieve. Looking back now it seems a little childish, but man that was a painful night and a painful memory.
I was sitting in the folding seats right on the top of Section 35. The stadium was so full that there were fans crowded behind us, and they kept bumping into the back of our seats. It was impossible not to feel the intensity of the fans, and so so many came out for Monterrey, it almost seemed like an away match at times.
There was a sense that RSL was destined to win, like we had to. It was a home match, we only needed a tie. It just felt that there was no other outcome. And I wondered how it would have been if Beckerman had been able to dress and play, or if just more of the 20 shots were on frame...we’ll never know. It was heartbreaking and brutal, but more so for the players. You could tell they played their hearts out, and on that one night, when a 0-0 tie would have won it all, the magic was just not there.
The home leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Final stands out in my mind as the biggest sporting event that I have ever been invested in. It also stands out as my most painful sports memory. The build-up to that game was incredible. It was not just the few months leading up to the final, but the prior few years of Real Salt Lake continually building momentum and creating a buzz in the state and across soccer fandom in the U.S. generally. In those days, RSL had a really unique energy that was palpable every time you went to a game. This game really was the culmination of all of that because a win would have accomplished so much.
Had RSL came out ahead on aggregate, it would have put RSL’s name on the map on an international level. It would have arguably gone down in history as not just Utah’s greatest sports feat, but the greatest feat of any U.S. soccer club. A lot of what it would have meant is still unknown and all of that is why it hurt so much when the final whistle blew. RSL turned a lot of heads in their run to the tournament championship, and that’s something to be proud of. But for as much as it took to get to that moment, the possibility of glory for this small-market team was all stripped away in minutes.