RSL Cup blog taking a long much needed break

I've been a fan of Real Salt Lake since it joined MLS and took to the field in 2005, and I've been a fan of MLS since it began in 1996.

However, over the past couple of years, and especially the last several months, I've began to see the ugly underbelly of this sport. Most likely it has always been there and I was just too naïve to see it, but I cannot not see it anymore.

I'm taking a much needed break from the sport of soccer. I may or may not be back. I may or may not update this blog, I don't know. It would be a shame since I've had it up and running for almost 10 years, but the fun I once had just isn't there any more.

Hopefully you fare better.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rapids coach admits team is in "turmoil" , Mullan seeks psychiatric help

“We are in a little bit of turmoil ourselves,” the head coach said earlier this week. “There have been a number of injuries, we have had international call-ups and now there is the suspension. We are having to dig deep into our squad right now.”
(see Nick Thomas' article on dated 4-29-11)

"Mullan did not report to Rapids practice on Tuesday, and Smith told reporters that Mullan was “distraught” in the aftermath of the incident. Smith also said that Mullan has inquired about receiving psychological counseling to deal with the incident."
(see Nick Firchau's article on dated 4-28-11)

RSL tifo before Monterrey game

How RSL's CCL run will change MLS

(by Simon Borg 4-28-11)

Some said that Real Salt Lake would have changed the face of MLS for good had they knocked off Mexican champs Monterrey to advance to the FIFA Club World Cup.

That’s an observation for the simpletons.

They don’t understand that win or lose the CONCACAF Champions League finals, the MLS club had already changed the face of the league. A CCL trophy or a couple of matches played in Japan in December would not have achieved what RSL already had, probably unbeknownst to the team itself.

By becoming the first team to publicly state that the Champions League was its primary focus months ago, Real Salt Lake took the onus off all the other MLS clubs. The fact is that it’s been taboo to put the CCL ahead of MLS competitions. No club has ever made it a priority in the past, despite the rhetoric that may have blown our way from other cities.

And even if teams were ever half-serious about the CCL, they never acted on it. RSL were the first team to start a de facto reserve side and defeat another MLS club in league play to preserve their top players for CCL games. And they also became the first to substantially shake up their regular-season schedule and invest in charter flights to give the squad the very best shot to succeed in the Champions League.

Real Salt Lake were rewarded for those efforts, going farther in the competition than no other MLS team has gone before and watching sell-out crowds attend CONCACAF matches at Rio Tinto Stadium when temperatures were not very inviting.

And why wouldn’t MLS teams make it a priority? RSL manager Jason Kreis himself admitted that the matches in the Champions League have exposed his team to new competitive realities and also exposed RSL’s weaknesses on the field in a way that MLS league matches do not. They will be better off for this run.

If you thought that RSL were already the best team in MLS, expect them to improve even further. Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey will address the deficiencies that prevented them from getting past a very beatable Monterrey side.

Expect to see them tweak their squad and its tactical flexibility over the next year, perhaps with a greater role for Paulo Jr. – arguably the best finisher on the team, especially because it’s hard to believe that Wednesday's entire starting XI will still be intact for the 2012-13 Champions League, should they qualify.

With the precedent set by RSL this year, there is now no excuse for teams to shortchange the CONCACAF Champions League. No more hiding behind travel concerns or roster limitations (30 players are more than enough to face league and CCL dates). No more talk about how those games carry no weight for fans and don't transcend.

That's why every American fan should tip their cap to RSL and not just for going where no MLS team has gone before. But also for thinking the way no MLS team has done before. And this one cup run has elevated the Champions League's profile to become more important around the United States.

As a result, fan bases around the league will be more demanding of their clubs’ performances in the CCL. It will no longer be an afterthought. Thanks to RSL.

This is no silver lining in the storm cloud named Humberto Suazo that rained all over RSL’s CONCACAF Champions League party at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday night. Save the consolation speeches because that loss will hurt the RSL faithful for years to come. Kreis himself called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” which lined up perfectly for RSL.

But RSL’s history will be richer for this run, their connection with their fans will be deeper and their supporter base will be larger with new converts.

RSL’s magical midweek cup nights over the past 10 months, and the hair-raising moments that came with them, have now given license for other MLS teams and their fans to dream the same CCL dreams that RSL did.

Congratulations are in order.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gettin' buck wild with the streamers

The most amazing thing about last night's sold out game against Monterrey was that the entire stadium remained standing the entire game. (At least as far as I could see.)

Last night we were all one huge supporters group.

RSL loses to Monterrey

I can't talk about it, I just can't. I'm proud of our boys, I'm proud of our fans. But this is going to take a long time to get over.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mullan's tackle puts Garber on the spot

(by Steve Davis 4-25-11)

The Brian Mullan-Steve Zakuani matter:

This is a big moment for MLS commissioner Don Garber. Later this week MLS' disciplinary committee will render judgment on Mullan, the Colorado midfielder whose terrible tackle has ended Zakuani's season of high promise.

Mullan was immediately red carded for the 3rd-minute tackle that snapped the Seattle winger's leg Friday outside Denver. Now all eyes are on Garber.

The backdrop for all this is the serious, ongoing and long overdue discussion about refereeing. Garber has publicly stated his frustration at the lack of organizational control over referee development and the volatile way league matches are officiated. (U.S. Soccer oversees and assigns referees, not MLS.) And Garber has vowed to increase protection for the highly skilled, offensive players.

Well, the Mullan decision (and the precedent) is something that Garber controls.

Before the commissioner sits a fiercely physical player who has done grievous harm to a highly technical player, there are several points to consider. Is Mullan a dirty player, one prone to cheap shots? No. But his aggressiveness is notoriously weapons grade. He's the very embodiment of MLS' highly deserved reputation as a "physical league," which is really just a candy-coated euphemism for an overly combative league where pugnacity frequently rules over technical ability, where hustle and brute force often trump the beautiful game.

That's Mullan. He has always played on the edge, consistently straddling the line between the legal and illegal. Players around MLS respect Mullan's work rate and his do-or-die mentality. But they'll also tell you privately that he can cross the line into reckless behavior and that he's fortunate something like this hasn't happened before.

Mullan works ferociously; that part is commendable. But he also plays with a chip on his shoulder, always quick to scream and complain when the whistles don't go his way. And he has always been prone to emotional overreaction when he doesn't get the calls -- which is exactly what happened Friday.

Highly combative, aggressive players have a duty to police themselves and their emotions. Short of that, Garber must do it for them. Because it's too late for Zakuani, but not for the next tibia and fibula that may be in jeopardy.

Playing the game with that signature competitiveness has helped Mullan earn five MLS Cup rings. But there will eventually be a price for habitually pushing the limits, and here we are.

Finally, Mullan did himself no favors with his tone-deaf reaction, which included this unfortunate groan-inducer: "It's a tackle that I've done hundreds of times and would probably do again."

No, Brian, it's not a tackle you've done 100 times. Because this one shattered someone's leg. That makes it a very different tackle -- as he is sure to discover this week.


Comment by The Cup

Hopefully we won't see this chump bastard for the rest of the season.

Extra ball delay tactic spreads in Spain

( 4-25-11)

Soccer players are renowned for stretching rules to gain an edge. Now the ball boys are getting in on the act.

Sevilla's 3-2 victory over Villarreal on Sunday was marred by what seems a growing trend in the Spanish league -- extra balls thrown onto the field to stop play.

A video replay clearly showed a ball boy tossing another ball onto the field as Villarreal pushed upfield late in the game. Another ball was heaved onto the field from the seats above Villarreal's goal.

There were similar ploys during Real Madrid's visit to Osasuna in January, and relegation-threatened Zaragoza employed the tactic in a victory over Getafe last month.

The offending clubs were fined a paltry $877.

"Futbol is played with one ball...some people should learn before coming to stadiums and ruining a nice, exciting game," Villarreal striker Giuseppe Rossi wrote on Twitter after the defeat by Sevilla.

Referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco made mention of the extra balls at Sevilla in his match report, which means the Spanish soccer federation's disciplinary committee will have to study it. But it's unlikely to raise the penalty.

"We should look at altering the regulations," federation spokesman Jorge Carretero told The Associated Press on Monday. "The rules need to generate fines that are relative to the penalty. The problem with the current regulations is that they say a higher sanction can only be applied if the penalty is of a violent nature."

Villarreal goalkeeper Diego Lopez even nudged aside a ball boy after he hesitated in handing a new ball to the Spanish goalkeeper, who decided to fetch the ball that had been in play from behind the advertising boards.

"It's something you shouldn't expect to see at the stadium. In those moments when you're losing and they do these types of things you feel ready to act out stupidly, but you have to control yourself," Lopez said.

"What can you do? It's shameful. It's a question of sportsmanship."

Levante goalkeeper Gustavo Munua also experienced similar problems at Atletico Madrid on Sunday. Ball boys wasted time and often let the balls land short when Munua asked for them. Atletico won 4-1.

In January, Madrid lost 1-0 at the Reyno de Navarro Stadium, its league hopes beginning to slip away. Balls were sent onto the field as Madrid attacked, forcing play to stop.

Zaragoza, meanwhile, is desperately looking to avoid being dropped. Its finances are already a mess and relegation would compound a delicate situation.

Last month, Zaragoza was leading Getafe 2-1 with minutes to go when an extra ball rolled onto the field as the opposition attacked. The ball appeared to come from the Zaragoza dugout.

But for all the mounting evidence of shady tactics in clear view, the rulebook still holds sway.

"If it doesn't break the law according to statutes, then the committee can't really do much," Carretero said.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The story of RSL: A once-wretched MLS club is making history

(by Grant Wahl 4-20-11)

In the summer of 2007, a desperate rookie coach dropped everything in the middle of the MLS season and flew to Argentina in search of a future. Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis was just 34, his team was in last place and he needed a major talent upgrade. But could he risk everything by signing a midfielder he'd never seen play in person before?

One night in Buenos Aires, Kreis had dinner with Javier Morales, a 27-year-old playmaker who was looking to move after one season in the Spanish second division. For Kreis, the secret of signing players isn't just in their on-field ability, even though Morales had a good highlight DVD, full of ball skills and technique and tactical smarts.

It's also about the secret in their eyes.

"What is most important to me with these guys is meeting them," says Kreis. "All that stuff stands out when you watch a DVD, but you have no idea what kind of person he is. Seeing his DVD was maybe 65 percent, but talking to him and looking in his eyes fills that other 35 percent. It might have been the other way around."

"Javier was a 100 percenter. He sold me."

As the two men spoke that night, they formed a personal connection -- and Kreis made an impression of his own presenting Salt Lake as an enticing destination to a player who had been skeptical.

"The truth was that I didn't know the city, I didn't know the language and when I read about the team they were in last place," says Morales. "But what convinced me to come was Jason. He spoke about being a young coach and his expectations for the team. It interested me, this challenge of joining a team that wasn't very good. And now, four years later, we're a great team."

These days Morales is the best player on a team that has become the class of MLS. In his first two years, Kreis took Salt Lake from league laughingstock to 2009 MLS Cup champion. RSL is 4-0 in the young MLS season, and its 34-game home unbeaten run in all competitions may well be the longest in the world after Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk recently ended its 55-game streak. And tonight Salt Lake will seek to make MLS history when it meets Mexican champion Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final (10 p.m. ET, FSC, TeleFutura).

If Salt Lake can take down Rayados in the two-leg final, it will become the first MLS team ever to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup, competing against the world's continental champions (including perhaps Barcelona or Manchester United) in Japan this December.

Kreis has built a formidable team in the last four years, never straying from his policy of interviewing each prospective player, from star forward Álvaro Saborío to the team's last pick in the MLS draft. But team owner Dave Checketts has a special place in his memory for Kreis's first recruiting trip, when he signed Morales and forward Fabián Espíndola during those desperate days in '07.

"Morales and Espíndola were two huge pickups," Checketts says. "Jason knew we didn't have the horses to compete. I'd been warned a little bit about [previous coach] John Ellinger not being fond of South or Central American players, but I didn't realize it until Jason came back with these guys. It made a gigantic difference."

The Team is the Star

In some ways, you could argue that Salt Lake's run to the CCL final is already the greatest international accomplishment in the history of U.S. club soccer. NASL teams never bothered to compete in the continental championship, and the two MLS teams that have won CONCACAF club titles -- D.C. United in 1998 and Los Angeles in 2000 -- had to win just a three-round knockout tournament on friendly U.S. soil.

D.C. United's Marco Etcheverry-led team went on to win the Interamerican Cup, defeating South American champion Vasco da Gama over two legs, but that triumph came with caveats too: Vasco waived the right to host the return leg in Brazil (instead holding it in Florida), and the Interamerican Cup had such little gravitas that it hasn't been contested since.

Salt Lake, meanwhile, had to play 10 games to reach the final, including five difficult road matches against teams like Mexico's Cruz Azul and Costa Rica's Saprissa. Since 2008, the CONCACAF club championship has been organized more like the UEFA Champions League, with a true group stage and two-legged elimination rounds with games played home and away. (Unlike its UEFA counterpart, the CCL plays its final over two legs, not in a netural-venue single game.)

The new format gives the CCL winner more credibility, but the added games also require quality depth, which is rare in MLS. That's not the case with Salt Lake, which is so deep that its second-stringers won convincingly on the road against New England's first-choice team on April 9. "In every game we have a solid guy in every position, and usually it's solid veterans," says midfielder Ned Grabavoy. "But they've also done a good job picking young players and bringing them along at the right pace. I think depth is a huge reason we've gone so far in this tournament with all these extra games during the season."

Kreis's motto is simple: The Team Is The Star. Salt Lake's roster isn't top heavy with a couple of overpaid players. Instead it uses the successful e pluribus unum formula that made Houston and New England so successful in MLS during the mid-2000s. "I don't think every professional athlete in the world could buy into our philosophy as a club," Kreis says. "Professional sports lead to big egos. We don't have room or time for that."

Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey have kept together the core players of Salt Lake's rise, a mix of nationalities and talents that has found uncommon chemistry. Midfielder Kyle Beckerman, the deadlocked captain, is the team's hard-tackling heart and soul. Morales is the skillful creative hub, as well as a deadly threat on free kicks. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando keeps the mood light in the locker room and plays beyond his 5-foot-10 height between the pipes.

Center backs Nat Borchers and Jámison Olave are a towering presence on the back line, and the targets up top are Espíndola and Saborío, a pair of coldblooded veteran finishers.

Because this is MLS, Salt Lake has had to make some hard salary-cap decisions. RSL lost its top goal-scorers from 2008 (Robbie Findley) and '09 (Yura Movsisyan), a pair of young forwards who rode their success to Europe. But their replacements have excelled. Saborío, a 29-year-old Costa Rican, scored 18 goals in all competitions last season, while Paulo Jr. has found the net five times in limited duty.

"We've tried to do advance planning when we've understood guys' intentions [to leave]," says Lagerwey, a former MLS player, lawyer, TV commentator and columnist who joined his old Duke roommate Kreis in Salt Lake. "We worked hard to keep this core and rewarded guys with contracts."

As a result, several players are locked up through the end of 2012 (Morales, Olave, Paulo, Espíndola), 2013 (Beckerman, Rimando) and 2014 (Saborío, Borchers, midfielder Will Johnson). There's a definite window of opportunity.

Still, signing Saborío during the past offseason presented a potential threat to the notion of the team being the star. Salt Lake had to purchase his contract from the Swiss club Sion, which meant Saborío became RSL's first Designated Player, the tag MLS gives to star players whose wages aren't limited by the league's salary cap.

Concerned about the possible fallout, Lagerwey let the players know that Saborío's DP status was due to the transfer fee paid to acquire him (around $700,000) and not to his salary, which isn't the highest on the team. (Morales, who made $252,500 last year according to the MLS Players Union, is the top wage-earner.) "A lot of [MLS] teams bring in Designated Players that are no better than their current players," says Lagerwey. "It reduces the weight of expectations if you let everyone know that Sabo's not our highest-paid player."

The players say they're aware of the situation and appreciate the front office's candor. "What's good is [Saborío] buys into that," says Rimando. "He has this title of the DP, and he plays like one, but he's not like one in the locker room. He's one of the guys, and he wants to be, which is good."

By keeping its players together, Salt Lake has been able to fine-tune a style that combines Latino, North American and (thanks to Jamaican Andy Williams) Caribbean influences. The result is entertaining soccer that wins games.

"We have a style that I would call mixed between American and Latin, a new style," says Morales. "We work very hard in the American way, and we have a Latin game where we try to take care of the ball. It's not just the Latinos, either. This team has an idea of playing that's perhaps different from other [MLS] teams and more entertaining."

Nor is it a coincidence that Salt Lake's Spanish-speaking players have mixed with their English-speaking teammates far more than is usually common on soccer teams. Kreis says that when he played in Dallas there was a distinct divide between the Spanish and English speakers, but that's not the case with RSL, which asks its players to learn English to help foster a long-term commitment.

The effort matters. Morales and Olave, among others, have learned English from scratch. Players from nine different countries have connected. "I've been over for empanadas at Fabián Espíndola's house," says Johnson, a Canadian. Such is Morales' investment in the team that he approached Lagerwey last year and asked what he could to do to help Saborío's adjustment to Salt Lake City.

Saborío recalls Morales' gesture fondly. "He was one of the first people to help me look for a house and find a car dealership," Saborío says. "I was very thankful." After his first season on loan in Salt Lake, Saborío wanted to stay.

"Javier's kind of that bridge" between cultures, says Beckerman. "And the team is the star. We do buy into that, but it's not all true. Javier and Saborío, these guys are stars, but they're buying into it. That's what really helps it go."

"The locker room has some great personalities, but nobody has the mentality that they're bigger than the team," says defender Chris Wingert. "In soccer that's as important as any sport because there's more guys. If you're playing basketball you can have the ball every time down the court. If you're the best player in the league, your team is going to be pretty successful. That's not the case in soccer, especially not in our league."

You can't spell Kreis without R-I-S-K

To hear Dave Checketts tell the story, his fellow owners and MLS commissioner Don Garber thought the Real Salt Lake owner had lost his mind. In 2007, Checketts called Garber and told him he had decided to move the 34-year-old Kreis straight from the playing field into RSL's head coaching position.

"You did what?" Garber replied.

"I think he has every possible characteristic of a great head coach," Checketts said.

"Dave, we have a whole list of people you could interview for that job."

"I know. This is the guy I want."

Checketts, who had run the NBA's Utah Jazz and New York Knicks, didn't want any of what he called the "recycled" coaches who so often stomp the sidelines in the NBA and MLS. Soon after Kreis had joined RSL from Dallas, a plan was set in which Kreis would play through 2007 or '08, become Ellinger's assistant and move to head coach after a couple years (with Ellinger becoming the GM). But Salt Lake's miserable start in '07 caused Checketts to clean house that May, firing Ellinger and GM Steve Pastorino.

Kreis took over immediately.

"I have been around professional sports long enough to know that great coaches have certain characteristics," says Checketts. "Most are guys who were overachievers. Jason was a star in MLS, but I had watched him play for us. He'd play any position he was ever asked. He had always shown up in phenomenal shape and was an extra hard worker. And he had a will to win and never give up."

Kreis showed a clear eye for making smart acquisitions, even if they were personally excruciating. In June '07, a month after taking over, he traded his best friend, Chris Klein, to Los Angeles for a package that included Findley, who would lead the team in goals in '07 and '08. The next month Kreis acquired Beckerman from Colorado in a trade for Mehdi Ballouchy. "The move to bring in Kyle was the linchpin," says Andy Williams, who has been with the team since its expansion year in '05.

Fullback Chris Wingert came via trade from Colorado that July, and the following month Morales, Espíndola and Movsisyan arrived. The 2008 season brought the acquisitions of Olave, Borchers, Johnson and fullback Robbie Russell.

"Jason made the right choices on the players that he got," says Rimando, who joined RSL before the '07 season. "We don't have the South Americans that don't defend. We have South Americans that defend, want to get back and buy into the whole team concept. That's where it starts."

Checketts made a second risky hire in September 2007, passing over another list of recycled candidates and naming Lagerwey Salt Lake's general manager. Lagerwey and Kreis had known each other for 20 years, played together at Duke and with Dallas and felt comfortable working together. "We trust each other," Lagerwey says. "That allows us to disagree and even argue at times and still reach a consensus [on players] that's pretty thoroughly vetted by two guys looking at it from different angles."

Former assistant coach Robin Fraser left to coach Chivas USA during the offseason, but Salt Lake remains the only MLS staff comprised entirely of former players from the league. These days that includes Kreis, Lagerwey and assistant coaches Jeff Cassar, Miles Joseph and C.J. Brown.

"If you're going to run a bakery you should hire bakers, and if you're going to run a soccer team you should hire soccer players," says Lagerwey. "With everything we do we think: 'One of the five of us has been in this position. What did we do? How did we like it when our coach or GM said this or that to us?' By thinking through how every decision affects our players and our team before we make them, we've tried to be respectful of how we treat our players."

A former MLS MVP who scored 108 league goals in 12 seasons, Kreis likes to scour Amazon for foreign books on soccer coaches -- he has read two biographies of José Mourinho --a nd he freely admits to being "obsessive" about preparation. "Anything I do I want to be the best at," Kreis says. "I don't do things to just have fun, whether it's golf or mountain-biking. I attack things. When I played it was the same thing, and now as a coach it's the same."

To say that Kreis is single-minded about soccer might be an understatement. "I don't think he watches other sports," says Beckerman. "He just met [BYU basketball star] Jimmer Fredette the other day, and he didn't know who he was. All the rest of the guys are like, 'Jimmer!'"

But that doesn't mean Kreis is a robot or a drill sergeant. Most of the interviews for this story were conducted on the Thursday after RSL's semifinal advancement in Champions League, when he decided to give his starters a much-needed day off from training in New England. "He's a players' coach," says Borchers. "He comes to us for advice, asks us our opinion on certain things. There's never the sense that he's a tyrant. It's more of a democracy. We appreciate that respect, and it's a two-way street."

Naturally, Kreis' early success in his first four years of coaching have led to expectations that he'll be a top candidate to coach the U.S. national team someday. Yet he's a bit sensitive about the topic after receiving some static within the coaching community last year for speaking about those ambitions.

"If you ask any young MLS coach, I'd be shocked if any of them said they didn't want to be the national team coach," Kreis says, "so to me it's completely reasonable. What I thought came off a little incorrectly in some of that was that it was portrayed that I wanted to be the national team coach now, which isn't the case. I know I've got a lot of learning to do."

Perhaps, but the prospect is enticing: A young American coach who wins trophies and wants to play an entertaining style. Joseph, Kreis's assistant, maintains that Kreis wants U.S. soccer to be the best in the world, and the only way to do that is by bringing a winning brand of stylish soccer to MLS.

"I played for Bruce Arena, Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic and Bob Bradley, and those guys are unbelievable coaches," says Joseph. "Jason's approach is just as good as what those guys are doing, and you can see it in the players and the way they respond to him. When he talks, these players react to it. You can see it in training and in games."

Kreis recently signed a new contract with Salt Lake, and Checketts says he doesn't see his coach leaving for another MLS job. But the owner allows that the U.S. national team job is different. "At some point he will be a candidate for the national team," Checketts says, "and I won't hold him back if that opportunity presents itself, because he's becoming a very, very good coach."

So thankful is Checketts that he has decided to retire Kreis' No. 9 in a ceremony on July 4th before one of Salt Lake's two scheduled games this season on ESPN2. (The relative lack of RSL games on national TV this season is worth an entire other story.) Checketts says he made the decision after an RSL player requested to wear No. 9 this season, and the owner refused.

"I know this is traditionally not something that is done in this sport, but I don't care," says Checketts, who points out that he retired the numbers of Patrick Ewing and Dick McGuire during his days with the Knicks. "This is based on his whole body of work. He's the first player we ever signed. He broke the all-time scoring record in our uniform. He gave us credibility when we were a team that had none. No one is going to wear No. 9 again for our club."

Permission to dream.

When Real Salt Lake kicks off against Monterrey tonight, it will be representing an entire league in a final on the international stage. The team has already accomplished a notable set of firsts: first MLS team to win its CCL group, first MLS team to reach the CCL final. Tonight it could become the first MLS team to win a competitive game against a Mexican team in Mexico after 22 matches without a victory (0-20-2).

Of course, Salt Lake doesn't need to win tonight to become the first MLS team to win the CCL and participate in the FIFA Club World Cup. But RSL has been given every chance to create the right conditions to do so. MLS gave every team that reached the CCL group stage an extra $100,000 in allocation money to alleviate player costs, and the league switched around its schedule so that Salt Lake doesn't have to play a game against Philadelphia this weekend before Wednesday's CCL return leg in Utah. What's more, RSL's ownership coughed up around $200,000 for charter flights to Costa Rica for the CCL semifinal and to Mexico for the final.

"There are no moral victories at this point," says Lagerwey. "We got to the final. Now we've got to win it."

The Salt Lake players readily admit they have allowed themselves to contemplate the history they could make this year. "Looking at the season, there are four trophies we could win," says Beckerman. "In the back of our heads, we know this could be a special season."

Those visions include walking out onto the field in Japan this December next to Barcelona at the Club World Cup. When you're an MLS club, you don't get many cracks at the world's most beloved soccer team in a competitive game. Morales says the topic came up during a recent dinner he shared with Olave. "We spoke of how important it would be to achieve a title of this magnitude," says Morales. "The truth is we permitted ourselves to dream a little. But we know we have a great rival in front of us, and the final will be difficult."

Monterrey is the odds-on favorite, even though it has been going through a rough stretch in the Mexican league season. Rayados' salary budget dwarfs Salt Lake's, and it will have the most decorated player on the field in Chilean forward Humberto (El Chupete) Suazo. "He's a great player who's played in Europe and with the Chilean national team," says Olave, "but I think we can control him if we're focused."

"The Mexican teams are so technically gifted, so quick," says Borchers. "They have such a high soccer IQ when you play against them. As a center back I'm seeing situations develop that I wouldn't normally see in MLS. It's a lot more difficult to defend those teams. They don't come at you directly, and they wear you down with possession. There's so many different ways they can score against you."

But Salt Lake has its own scoring options. Saborío, for one, has succeeded at this level before, winning the CONCACAF Champions Cup with Saprissa in 2005 and scoring two goals in its third-place performance at the '05 FIFA Club World Cup. The Salt Lake players note that they were the heavy underdogs in the '09 MLS Cup final against Los Angeles, and look how that turned out.

"You'd like to think you'd get back here every year, but the reality is it could potentially be a once-in-a-career opportunity," says Johnson. "It's a rare chance to achieve something with a group you're so close with. We all want this for each other, and we want to represent Salt Lake and MLS on a global level."

Salt Lake's chance is here. Glory is 180 minutes away.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jason Kreis said he desperately wanted to become the first MLS team to win in Mexico

(RSL was damn lucky Humberto Suazo didn't score his second goal of the night. That would have put the game 3-1 for Monterrey and would have sucked the life out of an already lifeless RSL.)

(by James Edwards 4-21-11)

Jason Kreis said he desperately wanted to become the first MLS team to win in Mexico.

A tie never felt as good as it did on Wednesday night, though.

Having been thoroughly outplayed the entire second half, and with Monterrey closing in on a third goal, Javier Morales scored a stunning goal in the 89th minute to lift the visitors to an improbable 2-2 draw in front of a sold-out Estadio Tecnologico in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final.

MLS teams are still 0-for-25 in Mexico, but that's just fine with Kreis.

"I think it's the best draw of my life, no doubt about it. I'm really, really proud of what the guys put into that, and I know it wasn't easy at all. It was difficult circumstances for us," said Kreis.

RSL now returns home for the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium next Wednesday night. With its two road goals in Mexico, a victory, a 0-0 tie or a 1-1 tie will be good enough for Real Salt Lake to clinch the continental title in its home stadium.

Morales said there's nothing to celebrate yet.

"It's very good, but it means nothing 'cause we have to go home and we have to try and win the game," said Morales.

Until his late goal, it appeared Real Salt Lake would be coming home down 2-1 on aggregate.

He changed all that with a fantastic bit of individual skill after receiving a ball in the box from Arturo Alvarez. He thought about taking a quick shot, but with a defender closing quickly he cut it back on the right side of the penalty area and fired a driven shot just inside the far post.

"He takes that touch right, and I said 'goal.' He's done that so many times to us in training," said Nat Borchers.

What was a great finish was actually a nightmare start for RSL.

It took Monterrey just 18 minutes to breakdown RSL's defense with an easy goal, as Aldo De Nigris buried an open netter after a failed clearance in the box.

Conceding early wasn't necessarily a surprise.

In all but one of RSL's six Champions League road games, it conceded the first goal. To its credit, it battled back in those five games for a 1-2-2 record.

Five minutes after going down, RSL striker Alvaro Saborio missed a glorious opportunity in the box after a great build-up with Fabian Espindola. His point-blank shot from about 12 yards out was drilled right at keeper Jonathan Orozco.

The missed opportunity seemed to settle the players, and they were rewarded for their patience.

Real Salt Lake pulled a goal back in the 36th minute on a Borchers' backwards header in traffic. Borchers was in the box because of a corner kick, but Monterrey didn't clear the ball out of harm's way enough, and Will Johnson sent it back into a dangerous area, where Borchers was waiting.

"Really happy with the way we responded both times after going a goal down. Now we have our work cut out for us at home," said Borchers.

It was just the fourth home goal allowed by Monterrey in the Champions League.

The Rayados (striped ones) looked shaky the rest of the first half, but settled down and really dominated the second half.

In the 60th minute, Jamison Olave went from goat to hero in a matter of seconds.

First, he was fantastic making a lunging block on a shot by Neri Cardozo. The heroics were short-lived, though, as he whiffed on a clearance, with the ball popping up and hitting his arm. The El Salvadoran ref didn't hesitate pointing to the spot for a penalty.

Humberto Suazo, who was denied in the first half on a pair of acrobatic saves by Nick Rimando, confidently buried the penalty kick to put Monterrey back in front 2-1.

With the lead, and RSL noticeably tiring, Monterrey continued to throw bodies into the attack for a third goal. Kreis said at one point he saw both outside backs pushing forward.

RSL didn't handle things tactically as well as Kreis would've liked, and will address it for the second leg.

"There's one thing tactically that we're going to have to need to spend quite a bit of time on this week, so we're a bit more prepared and we won't have to look at so many attacks coming at us," said Kreis.

Borchers was pleased with how well the team did absorbing the pressure.

"They just committed a lot of numbers to the attack. I thought we did brilliantly to fend them off. I thought guys were in good spots," he said.

Suazo had a golden opportunity to push the lead to 3-1 in the 85th minute with a one-on-one opportunity in the box, but his chipped shot over Rimando went about five feet to the right.

After the draw, just the fourth by an MLS team in Mexico, Kreis echoed the sentiment of Morales, saying nothing will come easy in the second leg.

"I would think they're going to come to us with a extremely aggressive mentality knowing they have to win," he said.

RSL uniforms, 2011

2011 home colors

2011 road white

Victory Gold in Monterrey Mexico

Schmid knows what RSL are going through in CCL

(by Andrew Winner 4-19-11)

Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid has unique perspective on the CONCACAF Champions League, both in the recent and not-so-recent past.

As the head coach of the LA Galaxy, Schmid was the last MLS coach to win the CONCACAF trophy 11 years ago. Now in charge of Seattle, he's also the last MLS coach to face off against Real Salt Lake's opponents in this year's finals.

On the eve of RSL’s away match against Monterrey on Wednesday, Schmid took a moment to reflect on the tournament.

“The competition in 2000 was much different because it was a tournament where all the teams came to one location,” Schmid recalled of his 2000 title, when the tournament was called the CONCACAF Champions' Cup and was played over six days in January in the Los Angeles area. “You played your group games, then you advanced out of the group. It wasn’t the home-and-away competition it is now.”

Complicating matters for the Galaxy were a handful of injuries. Schmid recalled entering the tournament, which required three matches in six days, with problems along the back line and no healthy forwards. In particular, youngster Danny Califf came down with an injury and could not play, while recent signing Alexi Lalas was not fit for game action.

The problems along the front line were more urgent, requiring a creative solution from Schmid.

“We actually took a kid named Adam Frye, who had played forward for me when he was a freshman at UCLA and hadn’t played forward since, had played as a defender for five years, we played him as a center forward,” Schmid said.

After advancing via penalty shootouts in the team’s first two games, current Sounders assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson scored two goals in the final as LA defeated Olimpia of Honduras by a score of 3-2.

Ultimately, the Galaxy faced disappointment. Despite qualifying for the FIFA Club World Championship, the competition was canceled that season, robbing LA of the chance to play against some of the world’s best teams – including a date with Real Madrid at the Estadio Bernabéu.

On the eve of RSL’s first match in this year's Champions League finals, Schmid offered insight into Monterrey, whom beat Seattle twice in the group stage of this season’s CCL. In the second of the two group-stage matches last September, the Sounders got out to a 2-0 lead at Estadio Tecnológico before succumbing 3-2.

“We said that when we started in group play last year with our team that we were probably in the toughest group,” Schmid said. “Two of the four teams – you got one team in the final and the other team got knocked out in the semifinal. I think that shows that we were in the toughest group for sure.”

“They’re a good team," he said of los Rayados. "Monterrey is a difficult place to play at. Their stadium is a difficult place to play. We were able to get up on them but it was a game that they didn’t necessarily need to win so they probably approached the game a little bit differently and sat some players that are very important.”

Arena believes RSL have shot to join, one-up DC

(by Luis Bueno 4-20-11)

In the early days of Major League Soccer, Bruce Arena’s D.C. United squads set the standard around the league.

Not only did DC claim the first two MLS Cups, but Arena’s team also piled up a meaningful international title. D.C. United were the first MLS team to win a CONCACAF championship, claiming the 1998 Champions' Cup with a victory over Toluca.

Real Salt Lake are aiming to be the third MLS outfit to win a league championship. While having been the first MLS team to win an international competition, Arena said the challenge facing RSL is unlike what DC went through to win 13 years ago.

“It was great, but [a] different scenario than it is now," he said. "We played a championship format. It was a little different, but Salt Lake has gotten good experience in the group play to be prepared for this. They obviously know what’s at stake.”

The other team to claim a CONCACAF title is Arena’s current team, the LA Galaxy. Like DC, the Galaxy won the 2000 Champions' Cup when it was held over a week-long stretch. Since the tournament morphed into a home-and-away format in 2002, and then a full tournament with a group stage and knockout round in 2008, an MLS team has not reached the final until now.

In 1998, DC played host to the Champions' Cup. In their quarterfinal match, United routed Trinidadian side Joe Public 8-0, then beat Mexican side León, who had previously ousted MLS Cup '97 runners-up Colorado in a qualifying series. After their 2-0 win, DC beat Toluca in the final 1-0 on a goal by Eddie Pope.

After DC and the Galaxy won it two years apart, such a thought may have seemed improbable.

“I don’t think at that point in time anyone kind of understood that we were going to have this type of dry run in the competition,” Arena said. “Now that it’s been such a big gap, I think it will be a great achievement for the league and certainly for Salt Lake.”

RSL will have to do what D.C. United did not have to, as RSL will play in Monterrey in the first leg of the series on Wednesday.

“Having the first game away is never easy," Arena said. "I think it’s easier the other way, when you have the first game at home."

Still, the opportunity for RSL to etch their names among D.C. United and the LA Galaxy in MLS lore exists. Salt Lake will have an advantage heading back to Utah for the second leg, scheduled for April 27, and as long as the series is close after the first leg, there is a chance for a third regional trophy for MLS.

“The good thing they have is they have a little altitude when Monterrey has to come back to Salt Lake," Arena said. "The altitude in Salt Lake is going to be a factor. If they can keep the game even or within a goal, I think they’ll have a chance at home to win.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

i Vamos Real !

Chicago Fire fans gettin' buck wild in Peoria

US Open Cup match at Bradley University, March 30th. Chicago beats Colorado 2-1.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Attiba takes one for the team

Former RSL'er Attiba Harris took one for the team when Vancouver hosted Toronto earlier this year.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Portland's renovated stadium


Sporting Kansas City at forefront of MLS innovation

(by Steve Davis 4-15-11)

When MLS insiders discuss various clubs' operational ways, they tend to categorize teams in one of two ways: those still running the sluggish, old MLS 1.0 (figuratively speaking, of course) and those having graduated to the higher-capacity 2.0.

Whether innovative approaches translate into more wins and better attendance, only time and prevailing market factors can say. But there's little question that committed ownership, armed with smart and modern plans, provides the optimum opportunity for success.

We're seeing a lot of that around Major League Soccer. Grounds have been grandly renovated for expansion outfits in Portland and Vancouver. Ownership in Seattle is a leader in forward thinking, of course.

But not all the trendy and cool things around MLS are happening in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, if you had to choose the most innovative group now thinking its way around the MLS chessboard, one that might even be running "MLS 2.5" at this point, you might be surprised where to find it. It lies deep in heartland, in Kansas City. There may not be a stronger embodiment of local, committed, innovative ownership.

That may be hard to see at the moment, but it won't be for long. That's because new Livestrong Sporting Park, with a full set of fancy technological advances, opens in less than two months, on June 9.

There is nothing wrong with AEG or Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd or any MLS ownership group. But there's a lot to like about a completely organic ownership outfit like Kansas City's, created and run by five wealthy, local businessmen with the singular aim of building a Major League Soccer power. OnGoal, LLC, led by Robb Heineman, Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig, bought the team late in 2006. This group has been steadily sprucing up the organization ever since.

Now if these folks make a mistake, it's because they made a mistake, not because they lost the plot while concentrating on NFL or hockey or selling concert tickets, which could be the case elsewhere in MLS.

It's not just the stadium that says "innovative and creative." It's everything. The owners are young by professional sports ownership standards, with backgrounds in health care information technology. The team practices at Swope Park, a $5 million complex funded in a creative public-private partnership with the city.

The club's major re-branding last year was the lead element in efforts to be more than a soccer team; they aim to be a community anchor, a noble and useful goal. Opinion might differ on the new name (Sporting Kansas City) and the artificially generated "history," but the organization formerly known as the Kansas City Wizards did generally get rave reviews for the spiffy new logo.

As for financial commitment, if the on-field product doesn't get better after two consecutive years of missing the MLS playoffs, it won't be from lack of spending. The club has five full-time assistants (including a full-time strength and conditioning coach) -- some MLS teams manage with three or four. And while a half-dozen clubs don't have a Designated Player at the moment, Kansas City's Omar Bravo, a popular Mexican international, has passed early tests.

Innovative marketing? Well, if "innovative" equals "guerrilla," Sporting KC easily leads the league. The PR bit with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco last month was just the latest caper. It certainly worked; how many other MLS sides got as much (or any) national media exposure in March?

None of it surprises MLS commissioner Don Garber, who told Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl last month that Livestrong Sporting Park will be the league's most innovative facility. "They're outside-the-box thinkers, very creative," he said.

Garber has long known the road to MLS success is mostly about committed ownership, a fertile market and the right facility. Kansas City always had committed owners. Fans and media might have bemoaned the original owner's spendthrift ways, but no one could deny Lamar Hunt's famous dedication. What Kansas City lacked most was the facility, banging around all those years at cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, then later in the minor league baseball grounds that became something of an MLS punch line. So developing the stadium was critical -- and then a resourceful naming-rights gambit put the cherry on top of it all.

The soccer team is years behind the NFL's Chiefs and MLB's Royals, of course. No point in challenging them head-on locally. But what if ownership practically created a new playing field? They did just that, finding a way for Sporting Kansas City to elbow its way into the conversation -- and for everyone to appreciate the effort. Ownership simply gave away stadium naming rights. And make no mistake, donating in this fashion to Livestrong is a gamble; the soccer team is leaving money on the table. For instance, the Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia Union will receive about $2 million a year through 2020 from naming rights at PPL Park. In MLS, that covers a substantial share of the player budget. Instead, Sporting KC hopes to donate somewhere around $8 million to Livestrong over a six-year deal for the fight against cancer.

"It's either groundbreaking or it's crazy, and there will be people to call it both," said Heineman, Sporting KC's president, as he announced the deal.

The stadium's initial price tag landed somewhere north of $140 million. But owners kept finding ways to improve the grounds -- and then kept finding money to pay for it. Today the final price is closer to $200 million, according to club officials. Meanwhile, ownership has systematically removed obstacles to on-field success. The team looks OK at the moment all things considered, 1-1-1 in the opening stages of a 10-game road binge pending completion of Livestrong Sporting Park.

"The ownership group, from Day 1 when they took over, they've come through on every promise they've made to organization," Kansas City assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin said. "It's everything. The stadium, the new brand, giving us resources to be successful. We need for nothing within the organization now, and they set the standard of excellence that we're trying to create through the whole organization. It's such a help when an ownership group like that is behind you and they understand the need for those kinds of resources."

Zavagnin should know. He played on a couple of pretty terrible MetroStars teams in the late 90s, when management was all over the place in terms of coaching, organizational structure, marketing strategies, etc. Later, Zavagnin played under the ultra-frugal administration in Kansas City.

So, is there a direct connection between resources and wins?

"If you use it wisely, there is," he said. "And you don't take it for granted. First you need a winning culture, and that's developed over time. That's what we're trying to do right now."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Coach Kreis wants the Supporters Shield

“It’s all fine and dandy to say we may have been the best team for some stretches of last year, but we weren’t the best team last year – LA was. The proof is always in the pudding. They had more points than we did, and so they were the best team last season. [The Supporters’ Shield] is something that we’d like to achieve this year.”

Portland's renovated stadium: Architect tells how the new field helps the team

(by Joseph Gallivan 4-13-11)

Fans streaming into JELD-WEN Field will do more than a few double takes at this Thursday’s home opener against Chicago. The North End rafters that for years have rung with the sound of “You Are My Sunshine” and “No Pity In The Rose City” are still there. But over on the 18th Avenue side is the brand spanking new woodwork of the eastern stand.

The turf will be familiar too. The eye is saturated with thrilling green as soon as the fan enters the stands. It also stretches right to the advertising boards, like baize on a billiard table.

But San Francisco-based architect Stephen Sefton of Ellerbe Becket, Inc. (an AECOM company) points out the little details that will bring the stadium alive for spectators. The brief was to turn a stadium, dating mostly from the 1930s, into a state of the art MLS stadium.

“The design grew out of a desire to provide a solution that was regional and also really expressed Portland,” said Sefton recently. They looked at the materiality of the old stadium and extended it into the modern construction.

“There are these great glulam (glued, laminated) timbers from the 1930s, which obviously relate to forests and evergreens. And the poured concrete has a wood grain pattern on it from the wooden forms.”

So board-formed concrete was used again. But this time it was sealed, leaving a natural concrete color, rather than painted green like the existing concrete. Also the underside of the east side roof is set with cedar planks.

The view of downtown Portland to fans on the west side stand and on TV was preserved by using a cantilevered, floating roof for the east. The steel struts hold it up like the fingers of a hand balancing a plate or a thin laptop.

Ellerbe Becket is the firm that renovated what was then PGE Park in 1999, adding the executive and team suites.

In the press box, the glass can now be folded back, meaning the media will breathe the same air as the fans. ThePA system and updated broadcasting facilities are a less visible part of the change, but fans and players alike should get ready for an auditory wallop.

“The proximity to field and the additional fans is only going to make the stadium louder and give the Timbers an amazing home field advantage,” said Sefton.

It’s not a stretch to say the stadium was redesigned around the fans more than the broadcasters.

“We had to figure out how to make it as intimidating as possible, and we did that by moving the field closer to the Timbers Army. A visiting goalie in that end is really going to feel it.”

American Football fields require huge sidelines to accommodate players, staff and vehicles. Soccer is much tighter, requiring 30 feet between sidelines and front row, just enough space to drive an emergency vehicle.

The soccer-specific sight lines were also a huge design factor.

“Everyone in the new (east) stand can see every aspect of the game, without any obstructed views. They can see over everyone to the side line. We made sure they can see the ball and the foot.”

Ellerbe Becket has designed or renovated dozens of stadia including the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium and the Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene.

New floodlighting brings JELD-WEN Field to TV broadcast standards, so the field has the requisite number of “foot candles,” or brightness.

Given unlimited space most new outdoor stadia are large, quiet bowls in suburbia. But JELD-WEN Field is not like that. For one thing, the east side will remain open and inviting. This is partly due to that floating roof, and partly the 18th Avenue plaza being widened. The field is not as visible from the street, but the rest of the stadium is.

The public plaza outside the northwest entrance on SW 20th Avenue and Morrison—opposite Fred Meyer—is also being opened up to the local residents.

“The stadium is a public amenity and the city was adamant about maintaining those views. We still want it to have this permeable relationship with downtown.”

In keeping with this openness, even the patients in the Providence Sports Care Center will have a view of the field.

The building will be activated every day. “It’s unlike any other field in the country because there’s this programmatic interplay between sports and training,” said Sefton.

The once barren south side, where Timber Jim would steeplejack up a pole and bang his drum, will now be mainly the Widmer Brothers Southern Front deck. It is an interactive, multipurpose space. At times it will be a staging platform for promotions or a stage for bands on concert days.

Since the property line bisects the south end, The Multnomah Athletic Club—original owners of the stadium in 1926—was a good neighbor partner in the design. Sefton said the designers were careful to make sure the back of the new southern scoreboard next to the MAC was minimal. “It's clean metal panel, with no signage.”

Fans will find they can move about the stadium freely. They’ll also have a place to call home again.

“We’re proud of all the nuances,” he said. “It was a challenge because it’s an older building. But it’s kind of like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field [in baseball]—they’re not perfect but that imperfection is part of the pleasure.”

Saturday, April 9, 2011

(more to come)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Olave is a verb and......

Nice praise from "usafan12" on Bigsoccer

Since the threads for the two legs of the Final will probably wait until after the weekend league games, I just wanted to say here:

It is a damn honor to be able to play for a regional trophy in your own house, and Real Salt Lake has earned it every step of the way. Congratulations once again, and take a moment to think of everything that happened along the way here:

- The 3-0 hammering of the Rapids on the last day of the 2009 season to sneak into the playoffs
- Back-to-back playoff wins over the Supporter's Shield-winning Columbus Crew
- A penalty shootout in Chicago that could have gone either way, esp. Grabavoy's clincher hitting the goalie's gloves and going in anyways
- RSL refusing to back down in front of the MLS/media darling Galaxy, getting the equalizer and holding their nerve in the shootout to win the MLS Cup
- Putting up with unthinkable levels of bull&%*! from Arabe Unido and still winning both games
- Taking care of business against Toronto, especially with Javi's free kick to guarantee qualification
- Narrowly letting victory escape in the Estadio Azul, only to turn around and let a B+ team take out the Mexicans in Rio Tinto to guarantee 1st place
- Putting on a "preseason" masterclass against Columbus at home to move to uncharted territory for MLS teams in the CCL: the semifinals
- Stealing the limelight from the MLS season opener with a 2-0 manhandling of regional power Saprissa
- Staring down the Monster's Cave, not losing the team structure, and punishing Saprissa with an away-goal to ice the series

Fact is, not a single MLS team has ever faced what you guys went through to make this CCL Final. Take pride in that.

Comments from Rimando's Facebook page

Only 4 mini purple flashlights, 5 lighter, and 1 bag of sand thrown at me. Not bad.... Can someone throw me a beer now?

Heard I was Tony Rimando tonight, all good.... as long as they know they name on my chest!

Thanks for all the love and support today, we needed that come 2nd half. Much love to all the fans around MLS and especially to our 801 RealNation.
On to the Final!

Real Salt Lake to face Monterrey in CONCACAF final

(by James Edwards 4-6-11)

Real Salt Lake's reward for beating Saprissa on Tuesday night was an exhausting travel day to Boston as it prepares for a league match against the New England Revolution this Saturday.

Shortly after landing in Beantown on Wednesday night, RSL learned its fate in the CONCACAF Champions League final, and it won't be the rematch many thought.

In the all-Mexican semifinal affair in Mexico City, visiting Monterrey scored on a late penalty kick to salvage a 1-1 draw with Cruz Azul and advance on aggregate, 3-2.

Monterrey will now take on Real Salt Lake in the two-leg Champions League final, with the winner qualifying for the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December.

Monterrey, which plays in the third-largest city in Mexico, will host the first leg on Wednesday, April 20, at 8 p.m. at the Estadio Tecnologico.

The return leg will be at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 27 at 8 p.m.

"Monterrey is a very good team. Suazo is one of the best attacking players in South America, and they also have a very good set of defenders," said RSL midfielder Javier Morales.

Both teams have enjoyed a tremendous home-field advantage throughout Champions League play. Real Salt Lake went 3-0 at home in group play, outscoring its opponents 9-3. It beat Columbus at home 4-1 in the quarterfinals and then Saprissa 2-0 in the semifinals.

Monterrey, the 2009 and 2010 Mexican League champions, also went 3-0 at home in group play, outscoring the opposition 6-2. In the quarterfinals, it beat Toluca 1-0 at home and then in the semifinals beat Cruz Azul 2-1.

"Monterrey has a lot of pace, a very strong forward up top. They looked very good in first game against Cruz Azul. It will be fun to face a new team, a team that doesn’t know us," said RSL midfielder Will Johnson.

For most of Wednesday's match, however, visiting Monterrey looked like its impressive Champions League run was coming to an end. Cruz Azul grabbed an early lead on Cesar Villaluz's goal in the 23rd minute, and it maintained the lead up until the 81st minute

Everything changed, though, when the referee pointed to the spot after Cruz Azul defender Waldo Alonso pushed a Monterrey player in the back in the 78th minute. Humberto Suazo buried the resulting penalty to tie the game at 1-1, and Monterrey survived as keeper Jonathan Orozco came up with a huge save in the waning minutes.

RSL met Cruz Azul twice in group play, but in Monterrey it will be facing a team it's never played.

10 most memorable goals in Real Salt Lake history

(by James Edwards 4-7-11)

# 10 - Dunseth leaves his markWith 25,287 fans packed into Rice-Eccles Stadium for Real Salt Lake’s first home match in franchise history back in 2005, there was a growing fear inside the stadium that the sellout crowd would be heading home disappointed. That all changed in the 81st minute when Brian Dunseth scored on a diving header to lift RSL to a 1-0 victory over Colorado.

# 9 - Brown equalizes in Kreis’ coaching debutWhen Clint Mathis scored against his ex-mates to put New York ahead 3-1 in the 83rd minute back on May 6, 2007, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it looked as if coach Jason Kreis’ debut as a head coach would end in disappointment. The unlikeliest of players, Chris Brown, came to the rescue with an equalizer in stoppage time that helped Kreis earn the 3-3 draw in his debut while coaching against Bruce Arena.

# 8 - Kreis scores No. 100Jason Kreis wanted his 100th goal to be something special, and indeed it was back in August 2005. He became the first MLS player in history to reach 100 career goals with a wonderful left-footed volley from 24 yards out that sailed into the upper right-hand corner of the net. “Had to be one of the best goals I’ve ever taken in this league,” said Kreis.

# 7 - Borchers’ late goal extends streakRSL rival Colorado was seconds away from a stunning victory at Rio Tinto Stadium late in the 2010 season, but that all changed on a dramatic 93rd minute header from Nat Borchers. The goal salvaged a 1-1 draw for RSL, but just as important it extended the team’s home unbeaten streak to 24 straight. That streak now stands at 26, and ironically enough RSL’s next home game is slated for next week against Colorado.

# 6 - Morales clinches RSL’s quarterfinal berthThousands of miles from home last September, all Real Salt Lake needed was a draw to clinch a quarterfinal spot in the CONCACAF Champions League in early 2011. A loss would’ve left qualification up for grabs heading into the final group game against Cruz Azul, something RSL desperately wanted to avoid. Second-half substitute Javier Morales helped RSL earn the 1-1 draw on a wonderful free kick goal in the 68th minute (photo unavailable).

# 5 - Movsisyan backheel seals playoff winIn the first playoff game in franchise history in 2008, Real Salt Lake kept its supporters on edge for 90 minutes. Yura Movsisyan eventually sent them into pandemonium with a clever backheel goal in the 90th minute that gave RSL a 1-0 lead after the first leg of the two-game Western Conference semifinal. RSL earned a 2-2 tie in the second leg to advance past Chivas USA.

# 4 - Morales scores massive goal against Crew Underdog Real Salt Lake found itself in a major hole in its 2009 playoff series against the best team in MLS. Holding a 1-0 aggregate lead heading into Game 2 in Columbus, RSL coughed it up in just 35 minutes, conceding a pair of bad goals to the Crew. A comeback seemed unlikely for a team that won twice on the road all year. Javier Morales swung momentum back in RSL’s favor by knocking in a Kyle Beckerman through ball to level the aggregate score at 2-2. RSL scored twice more to win 4-2.

# 3 - Movsisyan punches playoff ticketAll Real Salt Lake needed was a tie at Colorado in the 2008 regular-season finale to clinch their first playoff berth in franchise history. Strangely, the team came out and played what coach Jason Kreis described as the worst game all year. None of that mattered, however, as Yura Movsisyan scored a stunning goal in the 90th minute to give RSL the equalizer it desperately needed.

# 2 - Findley equalizes in MLS CupWith his team trailing the L.A. Galaxy 1-0 with 26 minutes remaining in the 2009 MLS Cup, Robbie Findley was in the right place at the right time and buried a dramatic equalizer just in front of David Beckham to level the game at 1-1. The goal eventually sent the game into overtime and penalties, where Nick Rimando made two saves to clinch 2009 MLS Cup title.

# 1 - Olave slays the Purple MonsterWith RSL clinging to a precarious 2-1 aggregate lead over Saprissa in arguably the most important match in team history on Tuesday, reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jamison Olave scored a magnificent 61st-minute goal on a half volley to give RSL a three-goal cushion in the aggregate series. His celebration of cupping his hands around his ears will go down as one of the lasting memories in team history. RSL hung on for a 3-2 aggregate victory and is now two wins away from establishing itself as the best soccer team in North America.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Real Salt Lake scores historic victory

Olave scores on a cracker of a shot

(by Jeff Carlisle 4-6-11)

In Major League Soccer's roughly 15 years of existence, the word "historic" has been bandied about with too much frequency. It's been used to trumpet everything from player signings to All-Star Game victories. Mostly, it's been a bunch of nonsense. But on Tuesday, Real Salt Lake delivered a performance that lived up to that description, advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League final by defeating Costa Rican side Saprissa 3-2 on aggregate.

The win marks the first time since 2000 that an MLS side has reached the final of CONCACAF's biggest club competition. Back then, it was called the CONCACAF Champions Cup, but comparing that edition to the current incarnation is like relating a Sunday cruise to an episode of "Deadliest Catch." Every game of the 2000 tournament from the quarterfinals on was held in Southern California, a convenient location for eventual champion Los Angeles Galaxy.

RSL, on the other hand, had to navigate its way through a six-game group stage and two knockout rounds, an odyssey that involved travel to Panama, Mexico and now Costa Rica. Real's triumph also marked the first time in five attempts that an MLS side had beaten Saprissa in a two-game series, and just the second victory in nine tries against Costa Rican opposition over two legs.

But what was even more impressive was the professional way Real went about its business. Holding a 2-0 lead from the first leg, RSL showed little in the way of nerves in the first half. It refused to bunker in and instead displayed enough attacking initiative to keep Saprissa honest. In fact, had it not been for the heroics of Saprissa keeper Victor Bolivar, who delivered two sharp saves to deny Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio, the visitors may very well have extended their lead heading into halftime.

That's not to say Real Salt Lake didn't face some tense moments. When Saprissa defender Luis Diego Cordero scored from long range a scant 42 seconds into the second half, the ghosts of past MLS failures in the CCL seemed ready to haunt RSL. Saprissa had all the momentum. Real appeared to abandon the patient buildup that had served it so well in the first half and began playing very direct. As a result, maintaining possession of the ball became near impossible.

But where previous MLS sides had crumbled in such moments, RSL managed to steady itself. When Jamison Olave hammered home a rebound from Nat Borchers' header in the 61st minute, Real was on its way to making a new kind of history.

"I'm looking out there at the guys to see whether or not we're going to lose our stuff and continue to kind of go in a downward spiral," said Real manager Jason Kreis through a team spokesman. "I don't think we did; I think we kept it together pretty well. That's another bit of evidence of them being a mature group."

Not even Alonso Solis' 87th minute penalty, which condemned RSL to a 2-1 defeat on the night, could take the shine off a truly momentous aggregate victory.

Of course, Kreis wasn't about to let his side bask in what it has already achieved. "We did accomplish something, there's no doubt about it," he said. "But I think all of us feel that the real history is to be made. We've gotten to the dance, now we'll see what we can do."

Kreis has every reason to be wary. RSL is set to play the winner between Mexican sides Cruz Azul and Monterrey, and the record of MLS teams against Mexican opposition is even grimmer than it was against Costa Rican sides. Only once in 12 attempts has an MLS team prevailed over two legs against a Mexican team. That was back in 2002, when the then Kansas Wizards defeated Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals.

Things haven't gone much better in the CCL since CONCACAF first instituted a group stage during the 2008-09 tournament. In group matches, MLS teams have gone 2-12-2 against Mexican teams. But one of those wins came when RSL beat Cruz Azul 3-1 this past October. That win came after the two sides played an epic encounter two months earlier in Mexico City that Cruz Azul won, 5-4.

Such numbers aren't likely to trouble Kreis. He'll look at it as another opportunity to rewrite the history books.

Real Salt Lake advances to CONCACAF final despite loss

(by Adam Williams 4-5-11)

Losing never tasted so sweet.

Real Salt Lake will be the first MLS team to ever play in the CONCACAF Champions League final, despite a 2-1 loss to Costa Rican club Saprissa on Tuesday night.

RSL entered Tuesday's game with a two-goal advantage and won the series by a 3-2 aggregate score after beating Saprissa 2-0 on March 15 at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL will play either Cruz Azul or Monterrey of the Mexican League in the CONCACAF championship game. The two Mexican sides square off tonight.

"We would have liked to advance to the final in a more impressive fashion," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "This was not our best game, but I don't want to take anything away from the accomplishment. The guys are pleased and we are happy to moving on to the finals."

After a reasonably tame first half for both sides, Saprissa stunned RSL in the first minute of the second half when midfielder Luis Diego Cordero unleashed a twisting blast over the arms of RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. The goal awakened the raucous crowd, who took to chanting, singing and jumping, shaking the stadium and giving Saprissa its first taste of momentum.

But it was short-lived.

In the 60th minute, RSL defender Jamison Olave smacked in a loose ball from six yards out to tie the score. An RSL corner kick was deflected in the box and floated toward Olave, who used a right-footed volley to power the ball past Saprissa keeper Victor Bolivar.

As quickly as the crowd of 15,000 had created deafening noise in the stadium known as the "monster's cave," they were immediately muted by Olave's goal.

"It was critical for us to respond at that point in the game," Olave said after the game. "We'd just fallen behind and their crowd was getting loud.

"When we tied the score, it completely changed the game. It gave us a cushion and let us relax again. We couldn't relax the first 15 minutes of the second half."

After RSL tied the score, the next 20 minutes passed with little difference between the sides, as RSL worked off chunks of the clock by holding possession and stifling the Saprissa attack.

Yet, right when it looked like the game would end in a 1-1 draw, in the 87th minute, Saprissa was awarded a penalty kick. Alonso Solis converted the penalty kick and gave Saprissa to 2-1 lead. The final three minutes of regulation, plus three minutes of extra-time, were a hectic bombardment of the RSL box and goal. Saprissa pushed all of its players forward looking to score again, while the RSL defense sat back and repeatedly cleared the ball downfield.

In the waning seconds of the game, Saprissa forward Javier Arrieta fired a shot just wide of the RSL net. The crowd groaned and the final whistle blew.

The exhausted RSL players embraced and congratulated each other on the foreign turf.

"When the final whistle blew, we were both relieved and happy with the result. The second half was tough and their pressure was relentless," RSL midfielder Andy Williams said. "But we were able to hold them off and accomplish what we set out to do. Now we'll start thinking about the next round."

RSL is the first MLS team to ever reach the CONCACAF Champions League finals. The CONCACAF Champions League is played annually between the best club teams from North and Central America.

"It means a lot to this organization to be heading to the finals," Olave said. "It says a lot about the organization we are becoming. We are a mature team and are seeing a lot of success in the early part of the season. I have total confidence that we are going to have a very successful year."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

(more to come)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Red Bull fans enjoy the away section in Columbus

I like the two security guys keeping a close watch.