Real Salt Lake could make history with a win tonight in Mexico
Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah
MONTERREY, Mexico — No Major League Soccer team has ever won in Mexico, though three of 24 MLS teams came away with a tie.
That's the reality facing Real Salt Lake tonight as it faces Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final at Estadio Tecnologico.
As Dave Checketts said earlier this week, "We are flying a banner that not only says Real Salt Lake but also Major League Soccer."
RSL coach Jason Kreis said he'd love to change the course of history for MLS.
"I would absolutely love to be the first MLS team that wins in Mexico," he said.
A win would be a dream scenario tonight for the visitors (8 p.m., Fox Soccer), but it's by no means necessary in the two-leg aggregate series that sends the winner to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December.
"You've just got to give yourself a fighting chance going back to Rio Tinto. It is possible to lose a series in one leg if you have an off night," said Will Johnson. "We need to go back to Utah with the chance of still winning this whole thing."
The second leg is April 27 at Rio Tinto Stadium, where the home team is unbeaten in 34 straight regular-season matches and Cup competitions.
A tie tonight would be a great result, and even a one-goal loss — if Real Salt Lake at least scores a goal — wouldn't be the end of the world, either. Kreis was adamant that neither of those scenarios would be the focus against Monterrey.
"We're always an aggressive group, we're always a confident group, and we'll approach this match the way we have every other — we're here to win," said Kreis.
Success lies in the midfield, as it always does.
In what will be a very difficult environment at the home of the two-time Mexican Apertura champions, if RSL can stay compact and hold its own in the possession battle, it should be able to limit Monterrey's chances while creating enough of its own to stay competitive.
That won't be easy against talented Argentine midfielder Neri Cardozo and hometown midfielder Jesus Arelleno.
"Some of the best defense you can have is to be good on the ball. I think it's going to be critically important when we have the ball we need to recognize we need to keep it for long stretches. We need to be very mindful of not giving it away cheaply because when you play an opponent as talented as Monterey they will punish you for that."
Johnson believes the longer the game remains close, the more Monterrey will press because it's at home. That could open things up late for Real Salt Lake.
The timing might be perfect for an MLS breakthrough. Not only is leading scorer Humberto Suazo dealing with a severe shoulder injury — even though reports indicate he will play — but Monterrey isn't tearing it up right now, either.
Including a 3-0 loss at Cruz Azul in league play last Wednesday, and then a 1-1 draw at home to Morelia on Saturday, Monterrey is 1-1-4 in its last six matches in all competitions. Over that same span, RSL is 4-1 record, and the lone lose was at Saprissa and was still good enough for the semifinal triumph.
Both teams like to play a diamond midfield, and knowing how his team likes to transition quickly, Kreis said RSL must be very mindful of Monterrey's transition.
"They're really good at transition. I think it's a team that most of the goal chances they create and most of the goals they score come when they win the ball and they go quickly at the opposing defense," he said. "They get in behind pretty quickly and they have some pretty gifted forwards and very gifted attacking-minded midfielders and they're an extremely dynamic team. They don't stay in one position. They don't seem to be too tactically bound to one system."
That dynamic style is what makes the two-game championship so exciting.
"It's just about guys winning their individual battles, and if we can win more than them then we should have a good chance of winning," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman.
Monterrey is 8-0-2 in its 10 Champions League matches dating back to last year, including a 5-0 record at home with a plus-six goal differential.
RSL's overall record is 6-2-2, with a similar 5-0 record at home and an impressive plus-11 goal differential.
As much as Real Salt Lake wants to win, the key to lifting the Champions League trophy on April 27 might be simply minimizing the damage in Mexico and then capitalizing on their Rio Tinto Stadium magic at home.
"Everybody would be devastated back home if we came here and got crushed," said Beckerman.
He believes the key lies in the subtle nuances of the midfield.
"The big thing is if we can win the second balls and fight harder than them. When we seem to win the second balls in the midfield and then get going from there, we can slice teams apart," he said. "It's when we're not winning the second balls when we're struggling as a team and it takes us a while to get into a rhythm playing."
ENDLINES: RSL striker Paulo Jr. (hamstring) has officially been ruled out of tonight's match. ... Alvaro Saborio spent a year with Monterrey in his youth playing days, but he never played at Estadio Tecnologico, just trained there.
RSL on the air
CONCACAF Champions League Final
RSL at Monterrey
Tonight, 8 p.m.
Estadio Tecnologico, Monterrey, Mexico
TV: FOX Soccer Channel
Radio: 700 AM, 1600 AM
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