SANDY — For the last three decades, the storyline went like this: Millions of American soccer kids would eventually grow up and become adult soccer fans. Just like that, the USA would be a soccer nation.
Here it is, 2011, and guess what? Still waiting for the takeover. This is a country that couldn't convert to the metric system after trying for 50 years. You think it's going to adopt soccer as its favorite sport?
Real Salt Lake failed Wednesday in its attempt to tip the earth off its axis, losing 1-0 to Monterrey, Mexico, in the final leg of CONCACAF Champions League play. A win would have sent Real to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan this December — an unprecedented event.
Instead, the game was a kick in the shins for the team from Sandy. The decider ended with RSL rallying in front of the Monterrey goal but never connecting.
"It was a major, major disappointment. We'll see how we respond," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
So for Real Salt Lake, it's back to, well, Reality. One thing seems certain, following the club's climb: It should be a monster in its market this year, which is to say anywhere between the American coasts. Wednesday's loss was the team's first at home in 23 months and 38 games (including friendlies).
Once you've seen Paris, so to speak, Peoria shouldn't be a problem.
That isn't to say soccer isn't finding a place in America. Heaven knows, it would be hard to convince the 20,000 fans who showed up at Rio Tinto Stadium otherwise. Still, soccer nations view the American game as inferior. That changed a little this spring as Real Salt Lake came close. Defeating Monterrey would have been one large step toward respectability.
The USA has had its tries. When the L.A. Galaxy and D.C. United won the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998 and 2000, there was no FIBA Club World Cup to follow. In 2002, Team USA advanced to the quarterfinals of the regular World Cup. Truth is, MLS is around the 10th-best league in the world, which makes it a double-A commodity on a world scale.
It's not like Americans haven't tried to join the global sport, but mostly they've been left off the guest list. Soccer countries don't think American soccer is serious. Small wonder. The corpses of soccer leagues gone bad are littered across the highways and byways of America. There's a reason for that: Americans have plenty of other things to do. This year, though, the soccer world started to take note of RSL. So did the sellout crowd at Rio Tinto on Wednesday.
Fans were stoked to the max, as they say in the States.
If ever there were a night for Real to make history, this was it. Full house, loud crowd, stirring introductory video about honoring team, league and country. Real missed on two early chances when Fabian Espindola was stopped in front of the goal and went wide left on a breakaway four minutes later. The only score came on Monterrey forward Humberto Suazo's score from a few feet out in the 46th minute.
"Take one play off, and you get punished for it," said Kreis.
Though all it needed was a low-scoring tie to win the CCL, Real didn't change its approach. It attacked from the start. So did Monterrey. Between the clubs, they fired off 10 shots in the first half. In the second half, the pace increased. RSL squeezed off eight shots in the first 30 minutes. Regulation came and went. During four minutes of stoppage, RSL pushed down near Monterrey's goal several times. Jamison Olave even got off a shot on goal in the 94th minute. No good.
So it was close, but no confetti.
As Real general manager Garth Lagerway, this week: "In terms of what it means historically, I think it really makes a difference if we win or not. We're well past the point of moral victories."
But in the end, Real may have to settle for that. It was big to get there, but even bigger to lose.
The progress continues, but so does the wait.