The story of Real Salt Lake (cont.)
When Real Salt Lake kicks off against Monterrey tonight, it will be representing an entire league in a final on the international stage. The team has already accomplished a notable set of firsts: first MLS team to win its CCL group, first MLS team to reach the CCL final. Tonight it could become the first MLS team to win a competitive game against a Mexican team in Mexico after 22 matches without a victory (0-20-2).
Of course, Salt Lake doesn't need to win tonight to become the first MLS team to win the CCL and participate in the FIFA Club World Cup. But RSL has been given every chance to create the right conditions to do so. MLS gave every team that reached the CCL group stage an extra $100,000 in allocation money to alleviate player costs, and the league switched around its schedule so that Salt Lake doesn't have to play a game against Philadelphia this weekend before Wednesday's CCL return leg in Utah. What's more, RSL's ownership coughed up around $200,000 for charter flights to Costa Rica for the CCL semifinal and to Mexico for the final.
"There are no moral victories at this point," says Lagerwey. "We got to the final. Now we've got to win it."
The Salt Lake players readily admit they have allowed themselves to contemplate the history they could make this year. "Looking at the season, there are four trophies we could win," says Beckerman. "In the back of our heads, we know this could be a special season."
Those visions include walking out onto the field in Japan this December next to Barcelona at the Club World Cup. When you're an MLS club, you don't get many cracks at the world's most beloved soccer team in a competitive game. Morales says the topic came up during a recent dinner he shared with Olave. "We spoke of how important it would be to achieve a title of this magnitude," says Morales. "The truth is we permitted ourselves to dream a little. But we know we have a great rival in front of us, and the final will be difficult."
Monterrey is the odds-on favorite, even though it has been going through a rough stretch in the Mexican league season. Rayados' salary budget dwarfs Salt Lake's, and it will have the most decorated player on the field in Chilean forward Humberto (El Chupete) Suazo. "He's a great player who's played in Europe and with the Chilean national team," says Olave, "but I think we can control him if we're focused."
"The Mexican teams are so technically gifted, so quick," says Borchers. "They have such a high soccer IQ when you play against them. As a center back I'm seeing situations develop that I wouldn't normally see in MLS. It's a lot more difficult to defend those teams. They don't come at you directly, and they wear you down with possession. There's so many different ways they can score against you."
But Salt Lake has its own scoring options. Saborío, for one, has succeeded at this level before, winning the CONCACAF Champions Cup with Saprissa in 2005 and scoring two goals in its third-place performance at the '05 FIFA Club World Cup. The Salt Lake players note that they were the heavy underdogs in the '09 MLS Cup final against Los Angeles, and look how that turned out.
"You'd like to think you'd get back here every year, but the reality is it could potentially be a once-in-a-career opportunity," says Johnson. "It's a rare chance to achieve something with a group you're so close with. We all want this for each other, and we want to represent Salt Lake and MLS on a global level."
Salt Lake's chance is here. Glory is 180 minutes away.
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