Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew are the league's final hope this year for ending the drought in the CONCACAF Champions League. The 2008 and 2009 MLS Cup champions were drawn to go head-to-head in the tournament quarterfinals, which kick off on Tuesday (8 pm ET, Fox Soccer Channel).
But is not just be an event reserved for RSL and Crew fans. With a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup at stake, the entire MLS fan base will be intently following the developments of the matches. Who will the neutrals support in this all-MLS battle?
Borg: It's been a decade, folks – 10 long years since an MLS team last won the CONCACAF title. Every February always starts the same way in American soccer: hoping, praying that this will finally be the year the USA gets a team in the FIFA Club World Cup. Of the two MLS teams left standing in the quarterfinals, it's RSL that stands the best chance of giving MLS fans a taste of history.
Doyle: Maybe. I think people are a little quick to write off the Crew, though. Chad Marshall, Andy Iro, Danny O'Rourke, William Hesmer, Eddie Gaven, Emmanuel Ekpo, Robbie Rogers ... that's not exactly a bunch of nobodies. They've all been through CONCACAF battles before. Add in the South American contingent of Andres Mendoza, Emilio Renteria and Sebastian Miranda, and a vet like Jeff Cunningham, and I just don't buy that it's a clear-cut argument.
Borg: Sure, that collection of names doesn't sound like a shabby group on paper. But Hesmer, Gaven and O'Rourke are all banged up. And you forget that the Crew are a team that is still reconstructing its central midfield just in time to face arguably the best central midfield in MLS. Without meaning to slight the Crew, the general MLS fan will be rooting for RSL on Tuesday. Robert Warzycha's team needs time and games to find the right mix after the mass exodus of the old guard. Experimenting is not an option in the Champions League.
Doyle: Wait – wasn't it experimenting in the Champions League that led RSL to discover Paulo Jr.? A guy who'll probably start Tuesday night? Who's to say Rich Balchan and Dilly Duka can't do for the Crew's midfield what Paulo Jr. did for the RSL forward line? And why am I responding only in question form?
Borg: That's as many question marks as the Crew have for their first leg starting lineup. Look, Columbus will make things tough in this first game at Crew stadium and it helps them that neither MLS team will be at full fitness. But it seems as though RSL have placed more of an emphasis on the CCL than the Crew have. So much so, that RSL managed to alter their MLS schedule to have a weekend off before a potential semifinal away leg and a full five days rest for a potential final road trip. It's CCL title or bust for Jason Kreis & Co.
Doyle: "The best laid plans of mice and men..." Kreis may be focused on the CCL, but soccer has a way of blind-siding you. Plus, let's not ignore the karmic sledgehammer that is Crew Stadium vs Mexican teams. It just seems like when – not if – MLS teams finally break through and grab the regional conch, it'll be in the place where the USMNT did the same.
Borg: You're basing that Crew Stadium advantage on two national-team matches? If you want home-field advantage, they don't come any greater than Rio Tinto these days (only three losses in last 52 home matches for RSL). The last loss at home for RSL came back in May 2009.
They say the Crew have won more regular-season games than any MLS team in the last three years? None have come at Rio Tinto – three losses and an 8-1 goal differential in those matches does not bode well for C-bus. May the best team win, but we already know which one that is.
Doyle: I'm basing it on karma. We've all seen some of the ... erm... "questionable" calls MLS teams have endured over the years, the wild crowds in Mexico and Central America, the Murphy's Law luck our teams have experienced in this competition since the Galaxy won it. You need something more than talent and experience to counteract that – you need a bit of magic. Rio Tinto hosts an undefeated streak, yes. But Crew Stadium is where magic happens for US soccer.
As for the best team... I'm with you that RSL should win on paper. But they play on grass.
Borg: Matt, the USA needs to win this Champions League in the worst way. And there's not been a team more dedicated to winning it than Real Salt Lake. I laud their focus and their planning to get it done. Their core is established and the pieces are in place to take advantage of a favorable draw.
The Crew will have their day in the sun again, but as far as success in this specific competition is concerned, I'm convinced that the sympathies of the neutral MLS fans will be colored Claret-and-Cobalt.
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