MONTERREY, Mexico — Spanning a distance from Canada to Panama and then Bermuda to California, there are well over 350 first-division soccer teams in North America.
The CONCACAF Champions League is an annual tournament to determine the region's best, and little ol' Real Salt Lake — a franchise in just its seventh year of existence — is on the threshold of becoming that team.
The two-leg championship series against Mexican power Monterrey gets underway Wednesday in Mexico. The second leg will be at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 27.
"It's a great accomplishment so far. Let's see if we can do one better," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman, whose team qualified for the 2010-2011 Champions League by winning the 2009 MLS Cup.
"It's such a huge opportunity for this club," said Nat Borchers.
Real Salt Lake's march to the final has captivated soccer fans across the United States. The consensus has always been that the best teams are in Mexico, but RSL is out to dispel that belief.
"We wanted to prove that we're good in MLS and we're good regionally. I think our success should be a good barometer for future MLS teams," said RSL president Bill Manning.
If RSL ends up hoisting the Cup as CONCACAF champion, it would qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December to face other continental champions. It would be an astonishing accomplishment on top of what's already been a historic feat.
There are 40 countries in the CONCACAF region, but there's only room for 24 teams in the Champions League. Teams qualify for the competition by winning their league the previous year, or by securing one of their country's other qualifying berths.
Of the 24 berths, Mexico and the United States are guaranteed four teams each. The other 16 spots are filled by Costa Rica (2), El Salvador (2), Guatemala (2), Honduras (2), Panama (2), Canada (1), Nicaragua (1), Belize (1) and the Caribbean Zone (3).
Thirty teams are part of the Caribbean Zone, but only 10 sent teams to the CFU Club Championship in 2010. The rest could've, but opted not to because of visa and financial issues.
Between the 10 Caribbean Zone countries and the 10 mainland countries, 205 clubs were eligible to qualify for the 2010-2011 Champions League. Now the competition is down to two — Real Salt Lake and Monterrey.
"When we were looking at it from the outset before we even started group play last year, I don't think anybody expected we would get this far. It just shows how good a team we are at the end of the day, that we can match up with these premier teams in Central America and Mexico and do well," said Borchers.
Manning is quick to point out that Real Salt Lake isn't just happy to be in the championship round. The club's objective from the first group game back in August was to win.
Nobody, including, coach Jason Kreis, could've foreseen the impact the Champions League would have on Real Salt Lake.
"At the beginning of last year, I would've told you we were really excited about the opportunity, but probably didn't appreciate exactly how important it was or it could be for our club," said Kreis. "We tried to handle it the best way we could and said we were very serious about it. Now sitting where we're at, I'm really, really appreciative to the guys for what they've put into this to give us this terrific, terrific opportunity."
Between the six group games last year, and the four quarterfinal and semifinal games this year, Real Salt Lake owns a 6-2-2 record in the competition, including a perfect 5-0-0 mark at home.
Beckerman said RSL's success means a great deal to him personally.
"Who would've thought we'd get this far from when (this group of players) started in 2008. You didn't even think this far. We just thought we were doing the right things, we're going to become a good team, we started to see some results, and then here we are. Next thing we know we're in the finals," he said.
Beckerman became a believer that Real Salt Lake could accomplish great things after RSL's 3-0 season-opening victory at San Jose in 2010.
"I was finally part of 'that' team, the team nobody wants to play," said Beckerman. "I knew we were a really good team, and we were playing the type of soccer where it wasn't a surprise to win."
After a decade in the league, Beckerman finally knew how his peers felt on some of the great teams in MLS like Houston, D.C. United and New England.
He's just nine days away from potentially one-upping them all.
Real Salt Lake vs Monterrey
Wednesday, 8 p.m. at Monterrey, Mexico
April 27, 8 p.m. at Sandy
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