CONCACAF: Real Salt Lake a heavy favorite against rebuilt Crew
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea are among the biggest soccer clubs in the world.
Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, is a small-market team in a league barely taken seriously anywhere.
As far-fetched as it seems, RSL is just six games away from perhaps meeting one of these Super Clubs at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December.
"How many opportunities in your lifetime would you get to represent your club at the world championships in Japan," said RSL defender Nat Borchers. "I think that would be an amazing feat to be able to accomplish. This group can do that."
That quest to put Real Salt Lake on the map begins tonight in Columbus in the first game of its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series with the Crew. The second leg will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium on March 1, with the aggregate winner advancing to the semifinals.
The eventual CCL champion advances to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan from Dec. 8-18.
No MLS team has ever advanced to the tournament, but RSL's players believe they have what it takes to make history.
"The Champions League is a special, special thing. You want to be the best in your region. We feel like we're the best team in the region, and we have an opportunity to go out and prove it," said midfielder Will Johnson.
Tonight's match kicks off at 6 p.m. at Crew Stadium and will be broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel.
Real Salt Lake advanced to the quarterfinals by winning Group A of the Champions League last fall. Following it up with a championship is the top priority this season.
"It's everything. It's bigger than MLS Cup right now, it's bigger than everything. That's our No. 1 focus," said Johnson.
Even though the MLS regular season doesn't kick off until March 19, the players admit it feels like they're opening the season with the playoffs.
"It's totally different than anything I've had in MLS, but I kind of like that. To be honest with you it's fun to play something meaningful right way and not have to wait a couple months before a big match," said defender Chris Wingert.
Most believe RSL is a heavy favorite to advance.
Excluding Robbie Findley, every significant contributor from last year is back in 2011. Even Findley's loss isn't terribly significant with the arrival of dynamic playmaker Arturo Alvarez from the San Jose Earthquakes.
Columbus, meanwhile, is hardly recognizable. Nine players from last year's team are gone, including familiar faces Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll and Adam Moffat.
While Real Salt Lake spent the preseason fine tuning its approach for the quarterfinals, Columbus' coaching staff was forced to introduce nearly a dozen new faces to the squad. One of those faces is Jeff Cunningham, who spent the first seven years of his MLS career with Columbus.
Regardless of the personnel, Borchers won't be taking anything for granted.
"They're a different team, yeah, but they're still going to run the same blue collar defense they like to play," said Borchers.
Despite the roster overhaul, RSL coach Jason Kreis said he has a pretty good idea what to expect. Columbus spent a portion of its preseason in Arizona along with Real Salt Lake, and Kreis watched two of their three preseason games.
"But having said that, you're never sure. They could change things, they could scrap what they were doing in those matches and say, 'back to the other plan we we're going to do because we knew Real Salt Lake was watching,' " said Kreis.
ENDLINES: Collen Warner and Jean Alexandre are suspended for the match because they picked up their second CCL yellow card in the group finale last October. All other players will have their card count wiped clean. Away goals is the first tiebreaker in CONCACAF competitions.
RSL at Columbus
Tonight, 6 p.m.
TV: Fox Soccer Channel, 6 p.m.
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