RSL produces latest excruciating near-miss for American soccer
Real Salt Lake lost to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League final
The United States has a history of excruciating losses when opportunity beckons
This summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup becomes even more important for the U.S.
Now Real Salt Lake fans know what it feels like: that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach when your beloved team has moved mountains to reach the brink of history, only to falter at the last step, with glory so tantalizingly close. Salt Lake was there on Wednesday, one final, manageable summit push from reaching the pinnacle of club soccer on the continent: the CONCACAF Champions League title.
Needing just a victory or a 0-0 or 1-1 tie to sink Mexican champion Monterrey and become the first MLS team to reach the FIFA Club World Cup, Salt Lake lost 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, ending its 34-game home unbeaten streak in all competitions. A festive sellout crowd ended the evening shellshocked instead of celebrating the most important international triumph in MLS' 16-year history.
Yet Salt Lake's excruciating near-miss was only the latest missed opportunity for American soccer on the big stage. In fact, if heartbreaking losses make the eventual (inevitable?) triumphs so much sweeter, then soccer in the States is eating enough bitterness these days to throw the party of all parties when the big win finally comes through.
The dateline on Wednesday read Sandy, Utah, but it could have read Rustenburg or Johannesburg, Zurich or Nuremberg, Ulsan or Mexico City. If you follow U.S. soccer closely, every one of those cities conjures up a unique set of pit-in-your-stomach memories, missed opportunities on the world stage. They are part and parcel of every developed soccer culture in a sport where excitement is so often defined by the near-miss on the field.
You want heartbreakers? How about the second round of the 2010 World Cup, when the U.S. fought to tie Ghana 1-1 in Rustenburg and had the run of play, only to fall on a piece of exquisite skill by Asamoah Gyan in extra time? Ghana was beatable that day with a World Cup quarterfinal berth on the line, just as Ghana was beatable in Nuremberg in 2006 when the U.S. could have reached the World Cup second round with a victory. (The Yanks lost 2-1 instead.)
Missed opportunities. It's impossible to forget the U.S.' near-miss in the 2009 Confederations Cup final, when a 2-0 halftime lead against mighty Brazil had American fans imagining captain Carlos Bocanegra raising the U.S.' first trophy in a major international tournament at the senior level. But those dreams dissolved in the Johannesburg night in a 3-2 defeat that left the U.S. players gutted in tears afterward.
International soccer is full of such moments, but U.S. fans have certainly had their share. What would have happened if Germany's Torsten Frings had been given a penalty for his goal-line handball in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, a 1-0 U.S. loss in Ulsan in which the Americans outplayed the Germans? What if the U.S. could have held on to its 1-0 lead at Mexico during World Cup qualifying in 2009? How sweet would winning at the Estadio Azteca for the first time have felt for the U.S. supporters who were there that day?
The excruciating near-misses haven't just taken place on the field, either. If you're an American soccer fan, you know exactly how you felt last December when FIFA gave the World Cup 2022 hosting rights to Qatar. The U.S. got painfully close in Zurich, surviving until the final round only to come up just short again.
The point of going down this trail of tears isn't to dance on the grave of dashed American soccer dreams or to ignore the real triumphs that have taken place on the men's side in recent years, including winning a World Cup group ahead of England and beating Spain in the Confederations Cup. But even those successes were followed by missed opportunities when it mattered most.
Salt Lake's CCL final defeat is part of that developing pattern. You can't sugarcoat the pain, either. RSL's own players and management said they had to win, that there would be no moral victories, just as the U.S. players said after their loss to Brazil in the Confed Cup final.
But if you're an American soccer fan, you can take some solace from a few things. For starters, none of these close calls can be defined as chokes. American soccer players and teams may not always have the most skill, but they do not gag under pressure or quit when the going is tough. Perhaps most important, American soccer never used to be good enough to even get the opportunity to come so close to glory on the international stage. The arrow is trending upward.
U.S. Soccer and MLS have high aspirations, and Salt Lake's run to the CCL final shows that MLS may finally be on its way to competing toe-to-toe with the wealthier Mexican clubs and all their tradition. The U.S. national team has already overtaken Mexico in many ways, and yet with that success come expectations. Salt Lake may have joined the current pattern of painful near-misses for American soccer, but that only raises the stakes even higher for this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup.
It has been four years since the Americans raised the giant Gold Cup trophy after beating Mexico in Chicago. American soccer can't afford another missed opportunity. The U.S. needs to win.
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