LEHI, Utah – When Real Salt Lake take to the field on Tuesday to defend their home turf against visiting Cruz Azul, it could be a monumental tilt between two teams near the top of their respective leagues in North America.
It could be an epic battle for supremacy in Group A of CONCACAF Champions League play, with Cruz Azul needing a draw and Real Salt Lake needing a win to take the top spot.
It could be, but that’s likely where it will stop.
Unfortunately, the motivations in this one may be tempered somewhat because both teams are fighting battles on multiple fronts. Real Salt Lake are approaching the MLS Cup Playoffs and have an important match on Saturday in their regular-season finale, which could yield them the Supporters’ Shield if everything falls perfectly into place.
Cruz Azul, meanwhile, are five matches away from the end of their Apertura season. Although they have a hold on the top spot in their group, they are in a dogfight with Monterrey for the overall points lead.
[inline_node:319383]This all calls into question the motivation that each club will bring into this match, and the approach they will take toward getting a result.
RSL coach Jason Kreis has admitted that the original master plan was to clinch CCL passage early so the team could divert its focus back to league actions. But the situation may have changed.
“We have enough injuries that we are not going to be afforded the opportunity to play a complete group of players that needs matches,” Kreis said. “Also, I think it’s a great opportunity because there is still first place in the group at stake ... so we’re going to put a lot of emphasis on the guys that are out there to win the game.”
He admits that his counterparts from Mexico may not be as motivated.
“They had a big league match on Saturday, where they won," he said. "I think they are top of the league down in Mexico right now, and I think they would want to continue that and probably put more importance on that than they would on making sure they finish first here. And let’s remember that a draw is good enough for them [Tuesday] night, and so you could see two teams with opposing objectives.”
But there is some significant reward to winning the group. In fact, in the short history of this current CCL format, the group winner has advanced past the quarterfinals 86 percent of the time.
In addition, another advantage comes with the weather, as February in the Salt Lake City area can be – to put it lightly – less than pleasant.
“[Winning the group] would mean that we would play our first game away, and our second game at home," said Kreis, "[It allows] another week for the temperature to be right here, and potentially a bigger crowd."
Midfielder Andy Williams was held out of Saturday’s match presumably with the game against Cruz Azul in mind. He looks forward to the challenge of playing a top-notch Mexican opponent.
“For us, we don’t want to lose at all,” Williams said. “It’s our home and we have a little streak going, and we’ve never lost to an international team here. We don’t want them to be the first.”