SANDY — As the final whistle sounded last Wednesday in Monterrey, Mexico, Real Salt Lake's Javier Morales didn't hold anything back with his triumphant display of emotion at midfield. He had every reason to be ecstatic following his stunning 89th-minute equalizer.
Morales was still on cloud nine when he vacated the locker room 30 minutes later, but it was a tempered excitement.
"It means nothing 'cause we have to go home and we have to try and win the game," said Morales.
In the buildup to tonight's final leg in the CONCACAF Champions League final against the Rayados, Morales' teammates have shared his sentiment time and time again. As great as it was becoming the fourth team in MLS history to earn a draw in Mexico, it won't mean anything if Real Salt Lake doesn't take care of business at Rio Tinto Stadium tonight.
Thanks to its 2-2 result last week, RSL is 90 minutes away from winning the continental championship and becoming the first MLS team to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.
First, however, it must finish off a very talented Monterrey team.
"We're exactly where we wanted to be. We're in the driver's seat. It's our game to lose," said Will Johnson. "It's a nice position to be in, but we can't be too comfortable. It will be a very tight game. We've got to be on our toes for sure."
With the two-game aggregate series level at 2-2, a victory for either team clinches the championship. In the event of another tie though, the first tiebreaker is road goals. Having scored twice in Mexico, a 0-0 or 1-1 tie tonight will be good enough for Real Salt Lake to celebrate arguably the biggest accomplishment in MLS history in front of its home fans.
RSL has to like its chances with a 34-match home unbeaten streak in all competitive matches.
"I think we have to feel good about what we accomplished down there. We have to feel good about the result we bring back, but it's a measured good for sure, because this is still a very dangerous opponent and we still have a lot of work to be done," said coach Jason Kreis.
It will likely take 90 minutes of focus to protect the lead, something that's eluded RSL lately.
Down in Costa Rica in the semifinals, against Colorado at home two weeks ago, and then in Monterrey last week, there were long stretches in each match where Real Salt Lake didn't play like the dominant team fans are accustomed to seeing.
The opposition had a lot to do with the struggles, but RSL can't afford similar stretches against Monterrey.
"They're not going to lay down whatsoever, we haven't accomplished anything yet, we know that," said Ned Grabavoy, who figures to start at holding midfield in place of the suspended Kyle Beckerman.
A lot of Salt Lake's breakdowns in the first leg came when the midfield got too stretched. It will be Grabavoy's job to make sure the midfield keeps its shape to slow the dynamic attack of the Rayados — who incredibly are searching for their first victory in all competitions in more than a month.
Knowing a tie won't be good enough, expect Monterrey to try and dictate the tempo despite coming off a league game last Saturday and then another monumental league game this Saturday.
"We definitely need to know they're going to be coming here looking for that goal. It's going to be key who gets that goal first, that will change the game," said RSL midfielder Andy Williams. "We're going to play our usual game that we play at home and hopefully pull away from them early."
To be crowned the continental champion in just its seventh year of existence would be a staggering accomplishment, but one Johnson said is deserving.
"At the beginning of this tournament I'm sure not many Mexican teams or other teams around the tournament would've circled us and said 'Oh man we don't want to play them.' We've showed everyone we're a good team and we deserve to be here," he said.
RSL is 6-2-3 in its 11 Champions League games thus far, while Monterrey is still unbeaten with an impressive 8-0-3 record.
Real Salt Lake vs. C.F. Monterrey
Today, 8 p.m. Rio Tinto Stadium
TV: Fox Soccer Channel, Telefutura
Radio: 700 AM, 1600 AM, 570 AM, 106.1 FM
Team by team comparison
Nickname: Rayados (the striped ones)
League: Primera Division of Mexico
Location: Monterrey, Mexico
Elevation: 1,762 feet
Stadium: Estadio Tecnologico (32, 864)
Owner(s): FEMSA (Mexico's largest bottling company
Trophies: Mexico 1986, Clausura 2003, Apertura 2009, Copa Mexico 1991, InterLiga 2010, CONCACAF Cup Winners Cup 1993
Real Salt Lake
Nickname: Claret and Cobalt
League: Major League Soccer
Location: Salt Lake City
Elevation: 4,226 feet
Stadium: Rio Tinto Stadium (20,000
Owners: SPC Worldwide, Dave Checketts, Dell Loy Hansen
Trophies: MLS Cup 2009
RSL tied Monterrey 2-2 last week in Mexico. That score will be added to tonight's score. Goals scored on the road are used as a tiebreaker.
RSL will win the cup with a:
0-0 or 1-1 tie
Monterrey will win the cup with a:
3-3 or greater tie
Tonight's game will be sent to extra time and possibly a penalty kick shootout with a 2-2 tie.