SANDY — Let's start with this: Tonight's match at Rio Tinto Stadium is the biggest sporting event to take place in the state of Utah since the world descended on Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Let that sink in for just a minute, the biggest sporting event is a soccer game. Not the Jazz. Not Utah or BYU football or basketball, but a soccer match between Real Salt Lake and Mexican Champion Monterrey FC.
If I would have told you on July 14, 2004, that an expansion soccer team in Major League Soccer, that took the name of one of the world's most famous soccer clubs, would compete in the most meaningful sporting event in the state outside of the Olympic Games, you would have probably had a good laugh at my expense.
Heck, if I would have told you that a couple of years ago, I probably would have gotten the same reaction.
But that's exactly where we find ourselves this evening. Real Salt Lake is 90 minutes away from doing something unprecedented in American Soccer history: representing Utah, Major League Soccer and the United States at the world's most prestigious and exclusive tournament, the FIFA Club World Cup.
Only seven teams from around the world will compete in Japan this December and RSL finds itself one positive result away from being in that elite and rarified company.
Having been a part of the franchise in a small way since its inception in 2005, this is a particularly gratifying day for me personally, but is nothing compared to what the ownership, the front office staff and players must be experiencing.
I wrote in this space a week ago about the outstanding job that Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey have done in putting this team together and creating an exciting, entertaining and, most important, winning brand of soccer. Tonight RSL gets the chance to put its brand on display for the soccer world to see, and make no mistake about it, a win or positive draw tonight at Rio Tinto will get the attention of the soccer world.
For all of the dominance America has globally in football, basketball, baseball and hockey, we've always been seen as second class in world soccer. Even with the strides the U.S. has made with the national team and placing players in leagues in England, Germany and Spain, most outside the U.S. still consider the United States and Major League Soccer a step or two below other major leagues around the world.
A positive result tonight by Real Salt Lake could begin to change that perception. For the first time an American club team would get the "Golden Ticket" and gain entrance to Soccer's "Good Old Boys' Club." So it's fair to say that tonight Kreis' team is carrying the weight of more than just our city and state, it also carries the weight of this 16-year-old professional league and the entire American soccer community. No real pressure there, right?
But here's the good news, they get to play this monumental match at home, at Rio Tinto Stadium, where RSL hasn't lost a match of any kind in 37 tries, which includes its 5-0 mark in CONCACAF play. It's the greatest home-field advantage in American professional soccer. Tonight's opponent, Monterrey FC, has struggled in its last seven matches, with six draws and one loss and played a very difficult match on Saturday against league rival Puebla. While Real Salt Lake players had the weekend to train and rest their legs thanks to some assistance from Major League Soccer and the Philadelphia Union.
So 90 minutes of soccer are all that is left standing between Real Salt Lake and history. As RSL's Lagerwey has said, his team has a chance for a "Lake Placid Moment." But if RSL advances tonight, it won't be any sort of "Miracle on Grass," it will simply be one giant step forward for a team, league and country that have earned this moment and place on the world sports landscape.
I will talk to you tonight from Rio Tinto Stadium on ESPN 700. Brian Kamler and I will begin our coverage at 7 and kickoff at 8. If you aren't one of the fortunate 20,000-plus who will be there, it will be my privilege to bring you all the action on the radio.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.
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