|Olave scores on a cracker of a shot|
(by Jeff Carlisle espn.go.com 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.