Returning to Salt Lake City down 2-0 on aggregate to the Mexican standout Tigres, Real Salt Lake isn’t yet out of the biggest soccer tournament in North America.
It’s close, of course. CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals are played over two legs: one at home, one on the road. Last Wednesday, RSL visited Monterrey, Mexico, and came back with a loss to the UANL Tigres. The format is such that a loss in the first game doesn’t preclude moving forward in the tournament, but it does make it difficult.
Despite that difficulty, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about this match. It’s the biggest match that will take place at Rio Tinto Stadium until October, as it’s the team’s ticket to the Champions League final again. The team made the 2011 final and lost in heartrending fashion to Tigres’ cross-city rival C.F. Monterrey.
It’s a loss that has haunted Real Salt Lake since, and there’s a strong, palpable desire among the team to make it back into the tournament. There’s a real chance that this is the last best shot for players like Javier Morales, Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, Chris Wingert and Jamison Olave, and they’re going to want to make the most of it. The best matches often have an external motivator attached to them, and this one looks likely to be no different.
In last week’s match against the Tigres, Real Salt Lake actually created chances, and several times it had an opportunity to take the lead. While those opportunities didn’t come to fruition, it lends a degree of optimism ahead of this one. It’s nearly always the case that teams on the road are less efficient at creating opportunities, so with any luck, RSL will create more and better chances this time around.
Home ground, home crowd
With the first home match of the season being of such a magnitude, that famous notion of home advantage is going to rear its head. As noted above, home teams do create greater chances, but they also have the backing of the home crowd — and while it might be easy to think the Tigres have a louder, more raucous crowd, Wednesday should prove that Rio Tinto Stadium is definitely in the conversation.
Score a goal early, and you’re back in it
If RSL can manage to score early, the entire makeup of the game will change. It is currently such that the Tigres could hold a lead and feel good about playing reasonably defensively. But if Javier Morales, Joao Plata, Juan Manuel Martinez or Yura Movsisyan manage to finish one of the several chances that’s likely to emerge early on, the Tigres are left with a slender lead. That could force the game wide open, and while it might not lead to immediate success — the Tigres are still a very good team, after all — it’s an essential piece if they want to win.
Absences make the heart grow fonder
We’re not talking about Real Salt Lake players absent here, although Luke Mulholland is still in doubt for Wednesday. The Tigres will be without several key players, and that could lead to some excitement for RSL fans (and perhaps players, although we’re not likely to get them to admit it.) Without two key players in defender Jorge Torres Nilo (injury) and winger Rafael Sobis (suspension), as well as two backups in forward Fernando Fernandez and defender Antonio Breseno, the Tigres come to Real Salt Lake looking a little bit weaker than usual. That doesn’t make it an easy task, but it at least makes it a little more feasible.
Real Salt Lake plays the Tigres at Rio Tinto Stadium at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Matt Montgomery is the managing editor of RSL Soapbox.