Tonight all eyes in MLS will be on Monterrey, Mexico, where Real Salt Lake will take on Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final.
For Real Salt Lake and MLS, it’s an opportunity to help garner some respectability for the top league in the United States after the US and MLS have been absent from the final altogether since the LA Galaxy won the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup in 2000 under the lead of current Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid.
The tournament has since been dominated by Mexico and Costa Rica, with Mexican side Pachuca winning the tournament winning four times and Saprissa from Costa Rica has reached the final three times.
So while the entire league is watching with a rooting interest – the league has even produced an encouraging message from teams around the league (here) – they also watch with a bit of a student’s perspective, as Salt Lake has established something of a blueprint of success for the tournament.
It starts with a good home record.
RSL went 5-0-0 at home in the tournament to propel them to the championship and extend their unbeaten streak at Rio Tinto Stadium to 34 matches in all competitions.
“Their home record proves it - winning your home games is so big. Especially in Champions League play because conditions are so different and it’s very difficult to get points on the road,” Sounders FC defender James Riley said. “They have confidence there and that’s really what helped them get out of the group stage and they’ve been able to do some damage in the knockout stages.”
It was no easy path for Salt Lake even with their fortress at Rio Tinto.
Their group included semifinalist Cruz Azul from Mexico, as well as Toronto FC and Arabe Unido from Panama. Nobody who saw it will soon forget the incredible back and forth action in the driving rain at Estadio Azul in Mexico City when Cruz Azul outlasted RSL 5-4 with Salt Lake scoring a game-tying tally in stoppage time only to have the home side bounce right back with the game-winner moments later.
Sounders FC forward O’Brian White can attest to the trying task of getting out of Group A. He was on the Toronto FC side that narrowly missed advancing with a 2-2-2 record.
“It was a very tough group,” White said. “Going down to Panama wasn’t easy. Obviously, Cruz Azul is a very good team and Salt Lake is a really good team. Travelling played a big factor. I just think you have to have enough depth in your squad to compete.”
Seattle had a tough task in Group C, facing off with Monterrey and Saprissa, who fell to Real Salt Lake two weeks ago in the semifinals, along with Marathon of Honduras. Playing three of their first four matches on the road added to the difficulty level of the group.
“We had the ‘Group of Death’ and we took that challenge head-on. We were a bit unfortunate not to win some games that we thought we could have gotten points in and Monterrey was one of them,” Riley said.
The profile of the league has a chance to take a tremendous lift if Salt Lake is able to win the two-legged, aggregate-goal series. Salt Lake goes into the series with a group made up of MLS veterans and experienced players from Central and South America.
“It’s a very experienced, very veteran team. There’s not a lot that rattles them and that’s something you grow into,” Schmid said. “It’s a great opportunity for our league. It’s a great opportunity for Salt Lake and obviously we want to see them do very well.”
Riley, White and the Sounders FC will put down their differences with Real Salt Lake and cheer for the league tonight at 7 when Salt Lake and Monterrey kick off in the first leg, as RSL attempts to become the first MLS team to win the Champions League under the new format, adopted in 2008.
“Salt Lake is a good team, so kudos to them. They have a chance to do something that no MLS team has done, so we’ll be pulling for them for sure,” Riley said. “I’m sure a lot of guys around the league will be tuned in for that one.”
The game is on Fox Soccer, with the second leg falling April 27, also on Fox Soccer. The winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan from December 8-18.