General manager Garth Lagerwey did everything in his power this past offseason to keep Real Salt Lake's core group of players together to make another run at the CONCACAF Champions League title that eluded the club back in 2011.
Tuesday night begins the quest to find out if his troubles were worth it.
Real Salt Lake kicks off group play of the 2012-2013 Champions League against Costa Rican champion Herediano Tuesday night at 8 p.m. at the 35,000-seat Estadio Nacional.
The team arrived in Costa Rica late Sunday night in anticipation of the first of its four group games over the next three months. Tauro FC of Panama rounds out the group, and after each team plays the other home and away, the group winner advances to the CCL quarterfinals next March.
Based on its successful run through the 2010-2011 Champions League — which saw RSL lose to Monterrey in the final — it's a slight favorite to win the group. Two years ago, however, there were four teams in a group with the top two advancing after six games. With just three teams this go around, there's less room for error, and RSL coach Jason Kreis said he'll approach the Herediano match with that in mind.
"At the very, very least we need a draw in this very first game. Not saying we're going to play for a draw, 'cause that's not our style, but we believe that there isn't any room for error," said Kreis.
RSL has won two straight MLS matches heading into Champions League play, and hopes to continue that form on foreign soil. The players and coaches believe their past experience in Costa Rica a year ago should help.
In the CCL semifinals last April, Real Salt Lake played at Costa Rican club Saprissa. Even though it lost the match 2-1, the result was good enough to advance to the final on aggregate. The players hope that familiarity helps them this time around.
"We have a lot of the same guys around who played lot of minutes in that competition last year. The group stage is tougher this year for sure and you're probably going to have to find points on the road somewhere," said Ned Grabavoy.
On paper, Tuesday's match would seem to be the toughest of the four, but Grabavoy said he's not concerned about opening group play with such a tough match.
"You're going to play each team twice, home and away, so you're going to get to everybody at some point," he said.
Even though playing thousands of miles from home in humidity is never easy, Real Salt Lake could have a significant advantage over Herediano. While it is 23 games into the 2012 MLS season, the Costa Rican league is just getting underway. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that six contributors from last year's Herediano championship team are no longer with the team.
That continuity could give the MLS team a leg up in the opener.
Alvaro Saborio heads into Champions League play in great form with 13 goals in MLS play this season, tied for second with New York's Kenny Cooper. The RSL striker should feel right at home playing in his native Costa Rica, but he knows from experience that Herediano can't be taken lightly.
"They are a very good team, they are the champions of the league and we have to focus," he said.
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