SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – There’s a distinct impression on the eve of Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal second-leg showdown (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer) that the “Monster’s Cave,” as the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium is often called, is in reality nothing more than a very loud cubbie hole.
The much hyped home-field advantage of Deportivo Saprissa is perhaps more myth than reality. Having 21,000 fans behind them may boost the “Purple Monster,” but it’s not necessarily a major factor for Real Salt Lake, who hold a 2-0 aggregate goal lead entering the second leg.
“Not as big a deal as it’s made out to be,” RSL midfielder Will Johnson said of Saprissa’s stadium in downtown San José. “We have a group of guys who are excited about the challenge instead of intimidated. With our experience and diversity in the squad I think the guys are relishing the opportunity to play in that stadium.”
That’s not exactly what the Saprissa players had in mind when describing the impact they were hoping it had on RSL.
“Outside teams feel the pressure,” Saprissa defender Óscar Duarte said.
“We hope the stadium will explode [with fan support],” Saprissa assistant coach Randall Low said. “The gringo teams, when they’ve been here, the support of the fans weights on them and it’s a negative for them.”
Some RSL players may be in awe of the noise, according to RSL midfielder Andy Williams, and it may affect how well players on the field can communicate. But manager Jason Kreis says familiarity makes it an easy obstacle to overcome.
“One of our best attributes as a team right now is that we’ve been together for a very long time,” Kreis said in a press conference on Monday. “Our players have a very firm understanding of how each other likes to play, where each is going to be when we have the ball and when we don’t have the ball. It doesn’t demand a lot of communication from the bench and it doesn’t demand a lot of verbal communication on the field. They have a very good understanding.”
RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who previously played at Saprissa during his D.C. United days, confirms that teams cannot hear themselves in the locker room with rowdy fans making themselves heard through the windows, which are open on the outside in one of the distinct oddities of Saprissa's makeshift facilities. The stands are also directly above the locker-room ceiling, and the fans know it.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I know what it’s about,” Rimando said. “But we’re smart enough to have meetings before the games here [at the team hotel].”
The weather won’t be the oppressive heat that exists during the summer. And the synthetic turf field is new, installed just six months ago.
“Typical turf field,” RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said. “Probably a lot like New England and better than Rice-Eccles.”
[inline_node:332912]The lone MLS representative in the Champions League has an answer for anything the Monster’s Cave can throw its way. Although it’s hard to believe, Saprissa’s home field may prove an edge for RSL in a strange way.
The Saprissa players and assistant coach who attended the pregame press conference stopped short of making a public appeal for fans not to turn against them during the game if the goals aren’t free-flowing.
“Patience will be important for us but for the fans as well,” Low said.
“The players and the fans have to be patient,” said Saprissa’s starting goalkeeper Víctor Bolivar. “Sometimes it hurts when minutes pass and they go against you. That’s normal but it’s about staying motivated and trying our best. With everyone on your side it’s that much easier.”
And so with all the talk of the rundown Ricardo Saprissa and its big “Welcome to the Monster’s Cave,” there’s not much to it. The Columbus Crew captured a 1-0 win in 2009 during the same competition.
“I’ve told [my RSL teammates] that the fans are very involved in the game,” RSL forward and ex-Saprissa star Alvaro Saborio said. “We have to be careful, but at the same time, it’s 11 vs. 11.”