Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — You've seen the reports, heard the hype. So exactly how big would it be if Real Salt Lake advanced to the FIFA Club World Cup with a win over Monterrey on Wednesday? Should Utahns prepare to overturn cars and burn businesses in celebration?
I'd save the rioting until they win the whole enchilada. Then Salt Lakers can party like there's no tomorrow. After all, if RSL does go on to win the World Cup, it would indeed be an earth-shaking event.
RSL advanced to within a game of making the prestigious seven-team playoff with a 2-2 draw at Monterrey, Mexico, last week. All it must do now is win or secure a low-scoring draw Wednesday at Rio Tinto to advance to the final stage in Japan. A loss and RSL will go back to its own league and leave the global stuff for the mega-teams. But would a win on Wednesday be comparable to, say, making the World Series?
"We call our baseball championship a World Series, but it's anything but," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "This is a chance to move forward and represent our region and our entire continent on an international scale."
This of course isn't the first spotlight moment for a team from Utah. Were it not for a certain victory-obsessed Chicago superstar, the Jazz would have won two NBA championships. Still, they were the second-best basketball team in the world for two years.
Something similar happened with the 1998 University of Utah basketball team. The Utes reached the national title game but lost. Close but no kiss from Billy Packer. They also made the Final Four in 1961 and 1966 before being eliminated.
But there were also outright championships. Utah won the 1944 NCAA basketball title and BYU won the NIT in 1951 and 1966. But in those cases, there was a division of opinion as to which tournament determined the best team in the country.
BYU won a football national championship in 1984. Utah went undefeated and won the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and the 2009 Sugar Bowl, which meant they were arguably the best teams in America those years.
Making it to the CONCACAF finals is a remarkable accomplishment for RSL. But since this isn't finished, I'll just rank Utah's top team sports accomplishments to date:
10. Ten Ute gymnastics national championships. Not a ton of teams competing, not much global appeal, but you can't win 10 titles and not get some credit. Leading the country in attendance is an accomplishment in itself.
9. Real Salt Lake's MLS Cup in 2009. Nice, in a small soccer league sort of way.
8. 1944 Utes win the NCAA basketball championship. That year's team actually played in the NIT and lost, then moved on to the NCAA tourney. However, Utah had to win just three games to claim the title.
No, it doesn't seem like a real national championship to me, either.
7. BYU wins 1951 and 1966 NIT's. First place counts a lot, but having two tournaments (NCAA and NIT) clouds the picture.
6. Utah Stars win ABA championship in 1971. They were the No. 1 team in the No. 2 league, but looking back, the ABA was even better than we thought.
5. 1998 Utes finish second in NCAA Tournament. By the '90s there was no question which was the best college tourney. Only Kentucky — and poor shooting — kept the Utes from history.
4. 1997, 1998 NBA Finals for the Jazz. Big exposure, big event. The only problem was they didn't win. Close, but no trip to the White House.
3. 2005 Fiesta Bowl. Utes beat everybody. Too bad Pittsburgh was the best they could find in the post-season.
2. 2009 Sugar Bowl. The Utes should have been in the national championship game, but weren't. Still, they crushed Alabama — a former No. 1 team — in the bowl game. The rest was in someone else's hands.
1. Utah State's 1961 Gotham Bowl appearance. Just kidding. But you have to like the name way better than the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Actually, I'm picking BYU's 1984 national title in football as the state's No. 1 sports accomplishment. True, it was by vote, and BYU didn't play much of a schedule. But the Cougars did everything they needed to shock the country.
Shock the world? That's RSL's job. Win Wednesday and it's on my top-10 list. Win it all and I'll rank it No. 1.
Gotham Bowl notwithstanding.
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