SALT LAKE CITY – Some said that Real Salt Lake would have changed the face of MLS for good had they knocked off Mexican champs Monterrey to advance to the FIFA Club World Cup.
That’s an observation for the simpletons.
They don’t understand that win or lose the CONCACAF Champions League finals, the MLS club had already changed the face of the league. A CCL trophy or a couple of matches played in Japan in December would not have achieved what RSL already had, probably unbeknownst to the team itself.
By becoming the first team to publicly state that the Champions League was its primary focus months ago, Real Salt Lake took the onus off all the other MLS clubs. The fact is that it’s been taboo to put the CCL ahead of MLS competitions. No club has ever made it a priority in the past, despite the rhetoric that may have blown our way from other cities.
And even if teams were ever half-serious about the CCL, they never acted on it. RSL were the first team to start a de facto reserve side and defeat another MLS club in league play to preserve their top players for CCL games. And they also became the first to substantially shake up their regular-season schedule and invest in charter flights to give the squad the very best shot to succeed in the Champions League.
Real Salt Lake were rewarded for those efforts, going farther in the competition than no other MLS team has gone before and watching sell-out crowds attend CONCACAF matches at Rio Tinto Stadium when temperatures were not very inviting.
And why wouldn’t MLS teams make it a priority? RSL manager Jason Kreis himself admitted that the matches in the Champions League have exposed his team to new competitive realities and also exposed RSL’s weaknesses on the field in a way that MLS league matches do not. They will be better off for this run.
If you thought that RSL were already the best team in MLS, expect them to improve even further. Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey will address the deficiencies that prevented them from getting past a very beatable Monterrey side.
Expect to see them tweak their squad and its tactical flexibility over the next year, perhaps with a greater role for Paulo Jr. – arguably the best finisher on the team, especially because it’s hard to believe that Wednesday's entire starting XI will still be intact for the 2012-13 Champions League, should they qualify.
With the precedent set by RSL this year, there is now no excuse for teams to shortchange the CONCACAF Champions League. No more hiding behind travel concerns or roster limitations (30 players are more than enough to face league and CCL dates). No more talk about how those games carry no weight for fans and don't transcend.
That's why every American fan should tip their cap to RSL and not just for going where no MLS team has gone before. But also for thinking the way no MLS team has done before. And this one cup run has elevated the Champions League's profile to become more important around the United States.
As a result, fan bases around the league will be more demanding of their clubs’ performances in the CCL. It will no longer be an afterthought. Thanks to RSL.
This is no silver lining in the storm cloud named Humberto Suazo that rained all over RSL’s CONCACAF Champions League party at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday night. Save the consolation speeches because that loss will hurt the RSL faithful for years to come. Kreis himself called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” which lined up perfectly for RSL.
But RSL’s history will be richer for this run, their connection with their fans will be deeper and their supporter base will be larger with new converts.
RSL’s magical midweek cup nights over the past 10 months, and the hair-raising moments that came with them, have now given license for other MLS teams and their fans to dream the same CCL dreams that RSL did.
Congratulations are in order.