SANDY, Utah – Real Salt Lake embark this week on a new adventure: CONCACAF Champions League play.
This marks the team’s first venture into the depths of meaningful international competition. So now the big question: How serious will they take this competition? And how much will they focus on these upcoming games versus their remaining league calendar?
According to general manager Garth Lagerwey, the team has a lot of incentive to give this tournament a lot of attention.
“I think in terms of building our fan base, there is nothing that gives us more credibility than saying we’re not just playing for the MLS title," he said. "We’re playing for the region’s title, and we want to go compete against the world’s best in Japan [at the Club World Cup] in 2011."
In addition to building the fan base, this tournament can raise the profile of the team and capture the interest of would-be players as well. Although there has been a recent rash of imports coming from Europe, CONCACAF is still an important region for recruiting for Major League Soccer teams, and doing well in Champions League can only help the cause for recruiting from this pool. Case in point: Alvaro Saborio.
[inline_node:311771]RSL didn't win, nor even compete in Champions League last season, but another factor raised the team’s profile dramatically: winning the MLS Cup. However, the side-benefit of winning the Cup was automatic participation in the CCL.
According to Lagerwey, this was an important factor for Saborío, who won a Champions' Cup title while playing with Saprissa in 2005.
“We got Álvaro Saborío, in part, because he knew he was going to play in the CONCACAF Champions League," Lagerwey said.
For those still skeptical that this tournament will get the full attention of Real Salt Lake, there’s good reason. Although Columbus and Houston appeared to put a lot into their participation in this tournament last year, that hasn’t always been the case in the past. Plus, this tournament comes at a crucial time for many MLS teams trying to position their team properly for the playoffs coming up in a couple of months.
However, the signs are all there that RSL are approaching the tournament with a different philosophy.
Coach Jason Kreis insists that the Champions League isn't a chance to merely “develop players." He does admit that for this tournament, and for the remainder of the MLS schedule, more players will be put into the mix, but his distinction is an important one.
“Our first emphasis with this tournament is to win – to advance," he said. "It’s not to give young players experiences. We may do that, but when we do that it’s going to be with the intent to win.
[inline_node:315311]“You are going to have to approach it in the right way. You’re going to have to say, ‘All of us are capable pros,'” he added. “We watch you guys every day – you are fantastic players. Go prove it – go prove us right about how we feel about you.’”
The team is putting an interesting marketing focus on this tournament, pitching it as “Real Salt Lake Against the World.” The team has placed large billboards along major roadways around Salt Lake City, and have been handing out tri-fold pamphlets to fans offering an explanation of what the Champions League is all about and how the tournament works.
“I think it’s been a pretty concerted, widespread effort across the board to say that we’re taking it seriously,” Lagerwey said. “I think that’s come from a league level, as well as an individual club level. Commissioner Garber has said if our league wants to get credibility, we need to win Champions League.”