Columbus Dispatch, Mike Munden, Associated Press
Columbus Crew's Eddie Gavin (12) and Real Salt Lake's Ned Grabavoy race for the ball in the first half of an MLS soccer game Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Real Salt Lake opened its season with a scoreless draw against the Columbus Crew Tuesday night in the opening leg of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series.
The game, Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said, was a match more akin to boxing than soccer.
"Tonight was more of a battle than a game," Kreis said. "They were difficult circumstances to play a soccer match."
Three red cards — two shown to RSL players, a field covered in ice pellets after a Monday night storm and a gametime windchill factor of 18 degrees made RSL's first meaningful match of the year an ugly affair.
The rebuilding Crew, heavy on rookies and newcomers, used a lineup that included five players who made their debut for the team.
Yet the patchwork Crew held RSL to zero shots on goal.
"We didn't know a lot about those new players, but we knew that they're going to fight and be organized because that's what the Columbus Crew does," said RSL keeper Nick Rimando, who made four saves.
"But we felt we did our job, especially being a man down, to go into the next leg at 0-0."
Rimando made a save on the best chance of the first half when he knocked aside an angled, short-range blast by Crew forward Emilio Renteria at the near post in the 19th minute.
The Crew had another early look in the 30th minute, but a header by midfielder Eddie Gavin went wide.
The Crew could not capitalize on a lengthy man advantage after RSL defender Tony Beltran was sent off with a second yellow card in the 53rd minute.
Referee Jaime Marrufo later ejected RSL defender Nat Borchers and Renteria for a fracas away from the ball in the 72nd minute.
A furious Borchers said he retaliated after Renteria elbowed him in the throat.
"If you want to use an analogy, I think what I did was petty theft and what he did was a first-degree felony," Borchers said. "I hope they caught it on tape. He hit me right in the neck. Had I not backed off and he connected, I might be speaking to you through a breathing tube."
Kreis said he was upset by the field conditions and the Crew's decision to not cover the playing surface on Monday night.
A Crew staffer said the team left the field uncovered because of potential damage to an already wet field and the difficulty of removing accumulations of ice or snow from a ground covering.
"It's not ideal, that's for sure, but I'd take this over 100 degrees and humidity," RSL defender Chris Wingert said. "At least you can run in stuff like this."
Crew coach Robert Warzycha said he was pleased with the result given the state of his injury-riddled roster.
Kreis and his players were pleased to leave Columbus with a tie and return to Rio Tinto Stadium on even footing.
RSL will be favored in the deciding second leg, to be played Tuesday in Sandy, despite losing Borchers and Beltran to suspension.
RSL is 3-0 and has outscored the Crew 7-1 in Rio Tinto.
"I think we can't be scared to play these guys," Warzycha said. "We showed today we are capable of stepping out there and winning a game."
An anemic offense troubled Kreis, but he allowed that the conditions might have been the biggest factor in the less-than-impressive performance of forwards Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio.
The starting strikers each took two shots. Midfielders Will Johnson and Javier Morales each had a single shot. The rest of the team attempted one shot.
"More than anything it was the conditions," Kreis said. "It's just difficult. When that happens you don't possess the ball well and you don't create chances."
The winner of the series will advance to a semifinal series against Olimpia of Honduras or Saprissa of Costa Rica.
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No American team has previously advanced to a Champions League semifinal since they changed the format to the current.
The winner of the Champions League will face some of the world's best professional teams in the FIFA Club World Cup that will be played in Japan in December.
The Crew or Salt Lake is guaranteed to play a Mexican team in the final if either advances. Four teams from the Mexican first division occupy the other half of the bracket.
Mexican teams have won the past five CONCACAF Champions Leagues.