SANDY — Years from now, long after Real Salt Lake’s current players move onto various careers, one of the great regrets from their playing days will inevitably be losing the Champions League final to Monterrey a year-and-a-half ago.
Things had aligned perfectly for RSL to make a historic breakthrough for American soccer, but those dreams were crushed at Rio Tinto Stadium in agonizing fashion.
The dream of being crowned North American champion didn’t completely die for Real Salt Lake management, though. It did everything in its power to keep RSL’s core group of players together last offseason in hopes of making another run at the Champions League. Management felt it owed it to the dedicated core of players who’d been with the club since 2008 to give them another chance at glory.
Tuesday night, RSL can take the next step toward that coveted Champions League title when it hosts Costa Rican club Herediano at 8 p.m. in the final game of CCL group play.
A 1-0 victory or any two-goal win would be enough to punch Real Salt Lake’s ticket to the CCL quarterfinals next February. Herediano can advance with any other result.
“One of our major goals at the beginning of this year was to get out of this group and we’ve got an opportunity to do that in front of our fan base at home. I don’t know that you could ask for much more,” said midfielder Will Johnson.
Defender Nat Borchers didn’t hesitate calling the match the biggest of the season for Real Salt Lake.
“It’s the biggest match we’ve had all year, definitely in terms of moving forward with Champions League, in terms of relief from the salary cap (in 2013) and in terms of pride,” said Borchers. “We always want to move forward in this competition. We’ve done well in it before. It just gives us a great opportunity to represent the club in the Central America region.”
Another benefit to winning would be its impact on the salary cap. Major League Soccer wants its own teams do well in the Champions League and as a result rewards teams who qualify with extra allocation money, a mechanism that basically increases a team’s salary cap.
With multiple players' contracts expiring at the end of the season (Javier Morales, Chris Wingert, Tony Beltran), and an expensive option on Alvaro Saborio’s contract too, the only realistic way Real Salt Lake can keep most of them around next season is salary-cap relief.
“We know there’s implications for allocation money and salary cap and how that’s going to affect our team next year, but I think what means more to us than that is to get back to the final and give ourselves another chance,” said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
First it needs to get past Herediano, which it lost to in Costa Rica, 1-0, back on July 31.
RSL didn’t know much about Herediano heading into that game as the Costa Rican season was just getting underway. Three months later, Kreis and his coaching staff are much more familiar with Herediano’s personnel.
“I think it’s a very well-coached team, disciplined team. (It's a) hard team to break down and score goals against, and then they have some very dynamic attacking players that take up different spots to create goal-scoring chances and finish. For me, it will be one of the best teams we’ve faced all season,” said Kreis.
Unfortunately for Kreis, RSL could be significantly shorthanded for its biggest game of the season. Saborio is already suspended because of yellow card accumulation, and on Sunday Kreis said that both Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola are “50-50” to play because of varying injuries.
Espindola came home from RSL’s game in Seattle last Wednesday extremely sore, and Olave is dealing with a hamstring injury.
Johnson is extremely hungry to go out and take care of business at Rio Tinto Stadium, especially after his Canadian National Team was eliminated from World Cup qualifying last week.
“It will be a much different game than playing in an empty stadium in Costa Rica. With our fan base behind us, I really feel they’ll be the ones that can push us over the top,” said Johnson.