SANDY — In just a few days, sports fans across the state will collectively turn their attention to BYU and Utah State basketball, two teams ranked in the Top 25 who hope to make some noise this March in the NCAA Tournament.
Tonight, however, many eyes will be on Rio Tinto Stadium as Real Salt Lake takes on Costa Rican club Saprissa in one of the most important matches in franchise history.
"It's right up there with MLS Cup final, for sure. It's huge. Monumental game," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman.
Becoming the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League, and qualifying for the Club World Cup, is the No. 1 priority for Real Salt Lake in 2011. Virtually every decision throughout the offseason and preseason was made with the Champions League in mind.
Having successfully earned passage through the quarterfinals, RSL hosts Saprissa tonight at 8 p.m. in the first leg of Champions League semifinals. The second leg will be in Costa Rica on April 5.
"This is a huge opportunity. I don't look at it as some oppressing pressure situation, I just look at what a fantastic opportunity we have to represent Salt Lake, Utah, the entire league," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
While Real Salt Lake is in the Champions League — previously the Champions Cup — for the first time in franchise history, Costa Rica super-club Saprissa is no stranger to the competition. Saprissa has been to the finals seven times, including most recently in 2008 when it lost to Pachuca 3-2 on aggregate. It won the competition in 1993, 1995 and 2005.
"We've done well to get to this point, and we really have nothing to lose. These guys have been here before; we haven't. So they're obviously more experienced in a situation like this," said defender Nat Borchers.
As is always the case in a two-leg playoff, taking care of business at home is key. All the pressure will be on Real Salt Lake to get the full three points tonight. Otherwise, it will need a result at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma in Costa Rica, where even the U.S. National Team hasn't won in seven trips.
"I can't say if we come out of here and we split the points I'd be disappointed with the result," said Borchers. "I think we would like to get the win against them at home because we know how hard it is to play down there, but if it doesn't happen we're not going to hang our heads. It is a two-game series and we have to keep that in mind."
The challenge in the second leg, however, might not be as daunting, as Saprissa has already lost five games at home this season.
While RSL is saying all the right things to take the pressure off tonight, realistically it needs to take care of business at Rio Tinto Stadium where the club enjoys a 34-match unbeaten streak in all competitions.2 comments on this story
"We have to look for the goals, one, two, three, whatever," said RSL's Javier Morales. "We need the goals and we need a win to go to Costa Rica."
RSL might have to forge ahead tonight without Chris Wingert, who tweaked his ankle during Sunday's practice and was very limited on Monday.
Even though it would seem logical that Saprissa would come to Utah to defend and play a counter-attacking style, Kreis said he wouldn't be surprised to see the visitors come out and play high pressure to try and bag an early goal. He said he'll have his players ready regardless of Saprissa's approach.