It's the day after Real Salt Lake’s 1-0 loss to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Finals and it still doesn't seem quite right. The feeling is one of shock and disbelief.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to end.
It wasn't just a belief that RSL would win. Everyone who entered Rio Tinto Stadium Wednesday night for the first ever Champions League Final on U.S. soil knew the home team was going to win. That is what makes the loss to Monterrey so devastating to RSL's loyal supporters.
In the days leading up to the game, RSL players and staff members asked fans to come early, wear red and be as loud as possible. Those who came did not disappoint.
Rio Tinto was a sea of red and it was by far the best soccer atmosphere ever in the state of Utah. It was better than any of the visits by the U.S. men’s national team or any other MLS playoff game. For international soccer in the U.S. there is never really a home-field advantage.
I attended the last U.S. national soccer game in Utah against El Salvador for a World Cup qualifying match, and the El Salvadorian supporters equaled that of the U.S. fans. That is the way it has always been in this immigrant-rich country where soccer roots are shallow compared with those of our neighboring countries. Foreign support has always equaled U.S. support even on home soil.
That’s what I first noticed at Rio Tinto Wednesday. There were only a few small sections of supporters for Monterrey and they were engulfed in a swarm of red.
As the home team made its way onto the field, streamers flew from the crowd covering the stands in gold, red and white. Banners were crawling their way up the stadium and chants echoed off the walls. It was everything the team had hoped for: a true home-field advantage against a foreign team.
The crowd of Rio Tinto stayed on its feet the entire game. Everyone was waiting for that first goal they knew would come. It finally came from Monterrey — not RSL — right before the break.
It was a crushing blow to almost everyone in the stands. RSL had fought hard in the first 45 and came close to scoring on a number of chances, but the goal never came. No one panicked, though. They had seen Real come from behind before and it could surely do it again. After all, Real hadn't lost at home for nearly two years.
Still, the punch to the gut right at the end of the first half hurt and the "we-got-this" feeling turned into the "this-is-going-to-be-harder-than-we-thought" feeling.
RSL came out a different team in the second half and so did its fans. They cheered louder and harder as Real pushed the ball forward and attacked at will. The crowd sang with venom while Monterrey used delay tactics by making substitutions when players were on the far side of the field and going down far too easily. It was enough for an official to dole out two cautions to the visiting team.
In the final frantic minutes, the Claret and Cobalt saw flurries of action in front of the net and RSL’s shots narrowly missed the frame or were deflected at the last second. Every close call was echoed throughout the crowd as fans were screaming at the pitch.
The late-minute glory would not come for the home team and when the final whistle blew, the fight had left the RioT.
As I looked around the crowd I saw more than a few whose emotions had bubbled over. They could no longer contain their anguish at the result.
The look on the faces of the faithful was one of sorrow and utter disbelief. They quietly stared at the opposing team celebrating on the field, and it appeared the few Monterrey supporters had doubled in size.
A few RSL fans stayed in their seats and clapped and the occasional "thank you" was shouted from the crowd. A large number of fans gathered in the west stands and cheered when the RSL players received their second-place medals.
As RSL Nation slowly exited Rio Tinto Stadium, fireworks lit up the sky for Monterrey and its accomplishment. The Rayados fought hard and deserved the win. They had done what no other team could in almost two years — leave Rio Tinto with a win.
While a game of similar importance to Wednesday’s may not happen again in the near future, soccer will continue in Sandy, Utah. This one loss does not mean the end of Real Salt Lake or Rio Tinto. RSL still has the best home record in Major League Soccer play and they are the only undefeated team left in the league.
Still, Wednesday’s result wasn't the way the game was supposed to end.
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