LEHI, Utah – Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis isnt’t entirely convinced that hosting the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League finals is necessarily an advantage. He values the opportunity of being able to stake his team out to an early lead in the series with a first-leg home match.
But now just 90 minutes away from being the first MLS club to taste Champions League success, it’s turned into a very comforting prospect to take on defending Mexican champions Monterrey at the fortress that is Rio Tinto Stadium.
“To have to go to Mexico for this game is a completely different feeling in your stomach,” Kreis said after practice on Monday afternoon. “To have it in front of your own fans and to have it where we’re so comfortable. Just to have that possibility in your mind’s eye about being able to lift the trophy in front of a sellout crowd screaming for us. That’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”
While the 2-2 draw in Monterrey seemingly gives Real Salt Lake an edge with two road goals scored in the Estadio Tecnológico, that opening result is not dictating any of the MLS club’s pregame preparations.
“I don’t think the course of this game [on Wednesday] would have changed much if the result was 2-1 over there,” RSL player Javier Morales said. “Here [at Rio Tinto] as the home team, we have to go out to win and go out to attack. In no moment has it crossed our mind to defend. The only thing that has changed is that there are three results that play in our favor.”
Based on the scrimmages held during Monday’s practice, it looks as if Ned Grabavoy will be the favorite to start in place of suspended captain Kyle Beckerman. Veteran Andy Williams is expected to take up the right midfield spot, which Grabavoy manned in Mexico.
The absence of Beckerman, who wore a colored bib and often played for the second team during the scrimmages, continued to be a theme. But instead of focusing on what they lose without Beckerman, the team is turning his suspension into a motivating factor.
“We’ve built a group that truly cares when one of their own family members is so deeply hurt because I know he’s very, very hurt by this decision,” Kreis said. “He’s played his whole life to play in a match like this. So it’s a very, very difficult situation. I feel a little bit of extra angst about it and I hope the whole team does as well.”
Of the 10 matches that RSL have played over the last two years at Rio Tinto Stadium without Beckerman, they have compiled an undefeated 7-0-3 record.
RSL come into Wednesday's decider at full strength, excluding their captain’s suspension for yellow-card accumulation. Forward Paulo Jr. will be available to play after participating in full training sessions on Saturday and Monday. Fullback Tony Beltran took part in his first full practice on Monday after recovering from strep throat.
And if the team needed any extra motivation, the comments made by Monterrey manager Víctor Manuel Vucetich after the first leg in Mexico continue to be a talking point in Salt Lake camp. Whether he meant it or not, the Mexican head coach provided enough bulletin-board material to last a week when he refused to give enough credit to RSL for their performance in the first match between the two clubs.
“Talk is cheap,” RSL forward Fabian Espindola said. “If they’re as good as they say, they have to show it. We have to do our job like we always have. And so if they’re superior, let them come here and do it.”
Added Kreis, “I personally feel like they disrespected us. And I hope we can show them what kind of team we are.”