LOS ANGELES (MCT) — Watching Real Salt Lake play should be mandatory for every soccer coach or would-be coach north of the Rio Grande.
South of the river, they already know how to play the game. It comes more naturally there than it does here. On this side of the divide, it more often than not seems book-learned and, as a result, is sometimes stale, sterile and stupefying, soccer as a paint-by-numbers exercise.
This is not a blanket condemnation. There are exceptions. The 1998 Galaxy under then-coach Octavio Zambrano was one of them. The 2006 and 2007 Houston Dynamo under Coach Dominic Kinnear was another.
There are others, but the brightest, most hope-giving exception of all in recent years has been the grand experiment going on in the shadow of the Wasatch mountains.
Somehow, some way, the folks in Salt Lake City have gotten it right. It didn't happen overnight and there were uncomfortable bumps along the way, but the team that had the chutzpah to call itself Real when it was founded in 2005 is unquestionably playing the best-quality soccer to be seen in English-speaking North America.
It was playing that way in 2009 when it won its first Major League Soccer title, moving the ball around with ease, confidence and purpose, and it is still playing that way. Other teams might have the big names; Real Salt Lake has the style.
By Wednesday night, it might very well be the champion of all of North and Central America and the Caribbean. Coach Jason Kreis and his players need only a victory or a scoreless or low-scoring tie at home to pull off that achievement.
Home, of course, means Rio Tinto Stadium in suburban Sandy, where Real Salt Lake is unbeaten in its last 37 games in all competitions.
"It's the stuff dreams are made of," Kreis said to one Utah news outlet in the wake of the team's last-gasp 2-2 tie against Monterrey in Mexico in the first leg of the regional final Wednesday.
If Real Salt Lake is crowned CONCACAF champion — becoming the third MLS team to win that title after D.C. United in 1998 and the Galaxy in 2000 — it would be heading to the FIFA Club World Cup in December.
There, the champions of Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America and Europe would lie in wait, meaning the possibility of a game against the likes of Barcelona or Manchester United or Real Madrid, assuming less-illustrious but no less worthy Schalke '04 does not surprise the other three European Champions League semifinalists along the way.
In other words, a positive result Wednesday night in Utah would thrust owner Dave Checketts' Real Salt Lake onto the global stage.
So how did it get there? How did a club that did not exist seven years ago become a real, honest-to-goodness soccer team so fast? More important, how did it learn to play the fluid possession and passing game so well?
Real Salt Lake is not Barcelona, not by a long, long shot, but its soccer is as attractive as it is effective and it should be the blueprint for others to follow.
Before the game against Monterrey in Mexico, Kreis went so far as to mention Barcelona by name, not that he was drawing any comparisons. He was simply making a point.
"I believe that one of the best defenses you can have is a team that is very good with the ball," the former top-notch MLS striker said. "Barcelona, the number of attacking players they put on the field is extremely high, and they're able to do that because they have the ball for 70 percent of the game."
Chivas USA Coach Robin Fraser was an assistant to Kreis for four years and helped build the Real Salt Lake team and forge its style and identity. Patience, signing players who are intelligent and comfortable on the ball, and settling on a system and sticking to it were crucial, Fraser said. But it did not happen overnight.
"I look at that group and in my first half a year with Real I think we won like four games, lost nine and tied three," Fraser said. "We lost seven in a row when I first got there.
"It's a process, for sure. Look at where they are today. They're fantastic. They're so good in every position and so deep. They've done a great job of putting a team together.
"They're a very good team and they're not where they are in the Champions League because of luck. They deserve to be there. To be quite honest, they're very much in the driver's seat at the moment."
Fraser talked about Real Salt Lake having "a lot of gritty and determined players," but there are also a lot of skilled players, including Argentine midfielder Javier Morales, "one of the best foreigners ever to play in the league," Fraser said.
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Add to that the abilities of Kyle Beckerman — who will sit out the crucial game Wednesday because of a suspension — Andy Williams, Fabian Espindola, Will Johnson, Alvaro Saborio, Jamison Olave, Nick Rimando and all the rest, and it is clear why Real Salt Lake is where it is.
It is a team that is a pleasure to watch, not because of what it wins, but because of how it plays, and, really, that is all that matters.
(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.