SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — Losing never tasted so sweet.
Real Salt Lake will be the first MLS team to ever play in the CONCACAF Champions League final, despite a 2-1 loss to Costa Rican club Saprissa on Tuesday night.
RSL entered Tuesday's game with a two-goal advantage and won the series by a 3-2 aggregate score after beating Saprissa 2-0 on March 15 at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL will play either Cruz Azul or Monterrey of the Mexican League in the CONCACAF championship game. The two Mexican sides square off tonight.
"We would have liked to advance to the final in a more impressive fashion," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "This was not our best game, but I don't want to take anything away from the accomplishment. The guys are pleased and we are happy to moving on to the finals."
After a reasonably tame first half for both sides, Saprissa stunned RSL in the first minute of the second half when midfielder Luis Diego Cordero unleashed a twisting blast over the arms of RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. The goal awakened the raucous crowd, who took to chanting, singing and jumping, shaking the stadium and giving Saprissa its first taste of momentum.
But it was short-lived.
In the 60th minute, RSL defender Jamison Olave smacked in a loose ball from six yards out to tie the score. An RSL corner kick was deflected in the box and floated toward Olave, who used a right-footed volley to power the ball past Saprissa keeper Victor Bolivar.
As quickly as the crowd of 15,000 had created deafening noise in the stadium known as the "monster's cave," they were immediately muted by Olave's goal.
"It was critical for us to respond at that point in the game," Olave said after the game. "We'd just fallen behind and their crowd was getting loud.
"When we tied the score, it completely changed the game. It gave us a cushion and let us relax again. We couldn't relax the first 15 minutes of the second half."
After RSL tied the score, the next 20 minutes passed with little difference between the sides, as RSL worked off chunks of the clock by holding possession and stifling the Saprissa attack.
Yet, right when it looked like the game would end in a 1-1 draw, in the 87th minute, Saprissa was awarded a penalty kick. Alonso Solis converted the penalty kick and gave Saprissa to 2-1 lead. The final three minutes of regulation, plus three minutes of extra-time, were a hectic bombardment of the RSL box and goal. Saprissa pushed all of its players forward looking to score again, while the RSL defense sat back and repeatedly cleared the ball downfield.
In the waning seconds of the game, Saprissa forward Javier Arrieta fired a shot just wide of the RSL net. The crowd groaned and the final whistle blew.
The exhausted RSL players embraced and congratulated each other on the foreign turf.
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"When the final whistle blew, we were both relieved and happy with the result. The second half was tough and their pressure was relentless," RSL midfielder Andy Williams said. "But we were able to hold them off and accomplish what we set out to do. Now we'll start thinking about the next round."
RSL is the first MLS team to ever reach the CONCACAF Champions League finals. The CONCACAF Champions League is played annually between the best club teams from North and Central America.
"It means a lot to this organization to be heading to the finals," Olave said. "It says a lot about the organization we are becoming. We are a mature team and are seeing a lot of success in the early part of the season. I have total confidence that we are going to have a very successful year."