Rewriting Our Woes: Real Salt Lake’s Champions League Run

By Patrick Doherty, writing from Boston.

Editor’s note: Patrick, a recent graduate of Tufts University where he wore the #8 for the “Jumbos”, is joining the AFR team as our expert on Major League Soccer and US Soccer. He’s a proud Bostonian, as big a US supporter as they come, a New England Revolution fan since the beginning, and also a supporter of PSG, Spurs, Ireland, and his hero Clint Dempsey. Give Patrick a warm welcome!

One more game. That’s all that stands in the way of the first American in the Champions League final.  

Only this final won’t be played at Wembley.

It surely does not have the same following as its cross-Atlantic counterpart. In fact, unless your team is in it, you may not even know it exists. Yet while only a handful of diehards may have been watching the tourney since the prelims kicked off last July, the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) may be the key to the future of soccer in North America. With their second-leg match against perennial Costa Rican champion Deportivo Saprissa on April 5, Real Salt Lake will be one step closer to earning the title of best club in the confederation.

But first off, let’s be honest. When it comes to club football, CONCACAF is not UEFA, and its premier club competition continues to languish in obscurity as far as the mainstream football fan is concerned, despite a reorganization of the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup three years ago.

Since this expansion of the tournament from an exclusively knockout format to a 24 team championship modeled after its European counterpart, not a single MLS team has made it past the quarterfinals. The League’s representatives have simply been abysmal, and I hate to be reminded that it was my New England Revolution who kicked off the League’s awful CCL record (a 6-1 aggregate defeat, including a 4-0 whipping at home, in the preliminary round of the 2008-09 season to Trinidadian minnows Joe Public FC, a side whose chairman just happens to be CONCACAF boss Jack Warner).

Conspiracy theories aside, MLS clubs’ record in CONCACAF just has not been good enough. Not since Los Angeles won the old Champions’ Cup in 2000 has an American side made the finals of the tournament. And in the three seasons of the newly revamped Champions League, MLS sides have suffered multiples losses to clubs from regional minnows like Trinidad and El Salvador. The Los Angeles Galaxy may have been the 2009 MLS Cup Runners Up, but even that couldn’t prevent them from being brushed aside by the minor league Puerto Rico Islanders in a preliminary round last summer.

With an already crowded schedule that includes MLS, the US Open Cup, and random summer friendlies that end up getting more attention than games that actually matter, some managers have chosen to sit their big guns and give their reserves a run on their trip down to Honduras or Guatemala. But as the years have gone by and MLS has languished at the cellar of CONCACAF’s only club competition, North American clubs have begun to focus more poignantly on winning the tournament.

Throughout the 2011 preseason, RSL coach Jason Kreis has consistently said winning the Champions League is his club’s top priority. In addition, MLS has addressed the bad run of form and made it easier for its clubs to compete, or maybe given them less excuses for failure, with new rules allowing for expanded squad size and increased allocation money for teams competing in the CCL.

As critical as I have been of certain moves MLSHQ has made over the years, file this one under brilliant. If MLS ever wants to be considered alongside Mexico as the premier championship in CONCACAF, it needs to succeed in this tournament and represent the confederation on the world stage at FIFA’s Club World Cup. It seems as though Commissioner Garber has recognized that the Champions League is the only true international litmus test available for MLS teams.

Frankly, Superliga isn’t it. Playing middle-of-the-table Mexican clubs who use the tournament essentially as part of their preseason does not make the MLS a hot destination for international talent. The seats are empty. The pressure isn’t there. Even the $1 million purse for the winners only adds to the feeling that the entire thing is fabricated, a cheap attempt by Soccer United Marketing to cash in on the rivalry between the two countries at the national team level. Don’t get me wrong, there are surely benefits to the tournament, but it is far from the ideal hook on which to hang the League’s collective hat.

Meanwhile, no MLS side has ever made it to the Club World Cup. Los Angeles qualified for its predecessor, the FIFA Club World Championship, in 2001.  But with the bankruptcy of FIFA partner ISL (of World Cup bidding bribery fame), the competition was cancelled before the Galaxy had the opportunity to face off against Ghana’s Hearts of Oak, Japan’s Jubilo Iwata, and the Galacticos in all their glory, Real Madrid. As a result, CONCACAF has been represented in every year of the tournament by a Mexican club, with the exception of Saprissa’s 2005 third place showing.

With their recent run through the CCL, Kreis’ Utah men have the opportunity to rewrite history. After drawing MLS rivals Columbus in the first round, RSL posted a 4-1 aggregate win in a pairing that ensured an American team in the semis.

However, just because the club has managed to avoid Mexican teams thus far in the knockout stage, their run at the finals should in no way be undervalued. RSL managed to win a group that included perennial powers Cruz Azul, including a 3-1 win at home over the Mexicans on the last match day.

Even more impressive would be their progression past Saprissa. Along with Cruz Azul, the Costa Rican giant is one of the two best performers in the competition since its new format launched in 2008. In knockout meetings with Saprissa, MLS clubs have been eliminated five times in five tries since 2001. Before RSL’s win earlier this month, only two MLS clubs had managed to beat Saprissa since the league’s inception in 1996. Of those, only Columbus has recorded a victory down in San Jose, when they rode a 5’ Eddie Gaven goal to a 1-0 win in the group stage last year. (For those keeping track, the United States national team has never won in Costa Rica and has been outscored 6-1 at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma since its transition to field turf in 2003.)

Fortunately, RSL’s current advantage means they don’t necessarily need a win to advance. The victory added to Salt Lake’s home unbeaten streak (which has since swelled to 34 games in all competitions). But there is surely still work to be done. With RSL’s dynamic team play and explosive scoring threats at his disposal, Kreis has never been one to pack it in, so don’t expect Salt Lake to play for a scoreless draw.

The fact is that MLS fans from every club should be pulling for RSL in this tournament. If come late April they are able to lift the trophy, MLS can take a major step towards securing its place as a regional hegemon much in the way the national team has over the past decade. When their shot at the finals comes on April 5, count me as a Loyalist for the day.

And should they progress, it’s only fitting that a club from our southern neighbor awaits.

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