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What a long, strange trip for Real Salt Lake

Published: Tuesday, April 26 2011 4:22 p.m. MDT

SANDY — Most casual sports fans who have been hearing for the past few days that Real Salt Lake is playing the biggest game in its short history, probably don't realize that the match is the culmination of a tournament that began eight months ago.

Actually you could say it all began the previous fall, clear back in 2009 when RSL won the MLS Cup. That gave the team an automatic berth into the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, one of four MLS teams to qualify.

The others were Seattle, which won the U.S. Open Cup in September of 2009, Los Angeles Galaxy, the MLS Cup runnerup to RSL, and Columbus, the 2009 MLS regular-season champion.

The four MLS teams were among 24 teams that qualified with eight teams, including RSL, getting automatic berths into the 16-team group stage. Twelve of the 24 qualifiers were from Central America, four from Mexico, three from the Caribbean and one from Canada, in addition to the four MLS clubs.

Once the 16 teams were set, they were divided into four groups with six games played over a two-month period.

Real got off to a good start with a 2-1 win over Arabe Unido of Panama in its first game in the group stage in mid-August at Rio Tinto. A week later came a 5-4 loss to Cruz Azul in Mexico, where Real gave up four goals in the final 20 minutes to lose a heartbreaker.

It turned out to be their only loss in group play.

RSL rebounded to beat Toronto 4-1 at home on Sept. 15, then beat Arabe Unido again, this time in Panama 3-2. The rematch with Toronto in Canada on Sept. 28 ended in a 1-1 draw, which clinched a spot for RSL in the quarterfinals.

On Oct. 19, RSL beat Cruz Azul in the rematch in Utah, becoming the first MLS team to finish atop a Champions Cup League group. Using mostly second-line players, RSL jumped to a 3-0 lead in front of a sellout crowd and took a 3-1 victory.

By winning Group A with four wins, a loss and a draw, RSL advanced to the quarterfinals along with seven other teams. Monterrey, Salt Lake's finals opponent, had the best record, with a 5-0-1 mark out of Group C

The tournament shut down for four months and after not playing all winter, the CONCACAF competition continued with quarterfinal matches four months later as Real was matched up against MLS adversary Columbus.

The first game was played in winter-like conditions in February in Ohio and RSL was happy to come out of it with a 0-0 draw. They felt they had the better team and that was proven in the game in Salt Lake a week later when Real took an easy 4-1 victory behind Javier Morales and Andy Williams, who combined for three goals and three assists.

Next up was the semifinals against Saprissa of Costa Rica. On a beautiful evening on March 15, Real won 2-0 behind goals from Alvario Saborio and Fabian Espindola and fine goalkeeping by Nick Rimando.

Three weeks later, RSL lost 2-1 in Costa Rica, but it didn't matter since Real won the aggregate 3-2, pushing them into the finals.

A win or a low-scoring draw Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium would put RSL in the seven-team FIFA World Club Cup in Japan in December. Then it would be another eight-month wait until bringing the tournament to an end, some 16 months after it all started.

Email: sor@desnews.com

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