“The game of the century.”
Dave Checketts jokes that he tells his daughter that about every game Real Salt Lake play. But this time – with a chance to become the first MLS team ever to win the CONCACAF Champions League – the stakes are higher than anything his club has ever faced in its six years of existence.
“We’ve never played a game in our history other than perhaps the  MLS Cup that’s as big as this,” Real Salt Lake’s founder and co-owner told reporters in a conference call on Monday. “This would mean perhaps more than anything that has ever happened to the club to advance.”
RSL open the finals of the CCL on Wednesday (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer) when they take on Monterrey in Mexico in what is sure to be a hostile, frenzied crowd of nearly 33,000 at the Estadio Tecnológico. The second leg follows on April 27 back at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The winner of the series will be crowned the champions of CONCACAF. And while only two MLS teams have ever held that honor previously in much less strenuous competitive formats, Checketts is focused not as much on becoming the third – but rather, the next step beyond.
As regional champions, RSL would be the first MLS club ever to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup, where they would compete in a meaningful competition against the club champions of Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. That’s a lofty goal, and one that looks past what is still a daunting challenge of vanquishing a tough opponent like Monterrey.
“We are happy to be here, we have great respect for our opponent and we know it is going to be very difficult,” Checketts allowed, “but we love being the first at everything. We love these occasions where people can say about us, ‘No one has ever advanced this far.’”
Real Salt Lake aren’t just the first MLS team to reach the finals of the revamped CONCACAF tourney, which was expanded in 2008 to include 24 teams, they also were the first to finish atop their group in the 16-team group phase. Coming this far is an achievement that is remarkable in its own right, but both Checketts and head coach Jason Kreis repeated that bowing out to los Rayados now is not acceptable, and that the ultimate goal is to advance to Japan in December.
“We all in our team and our locker room want more out of this thing,” Kreis told reporters on the call. “We are certainly not done and if we walk away now, I don’t think we’re going to be completely satisfied.”
RSL have won plaudits for their remarkable turnaround over the past six seasons, which has seen the club go from expansion strugglers in 2005 to MLS Cup champions four years later, a record 27-game home unbeaten streak in league play that is still alive and a widespread consensus that they play arguably the most complete soccer in MLS thanks to one of the deepest rosters in league history.
But now, says Checketts, it’s a unique opportunity to showcase those accomplishments to the entire world – not just the region. That step won’t be complete until RSL are hoisting the CONCACAF championship by next week and booking flights to Japan this fall.
“This is an opportunity to stamp Real Salt Lake’s presence on the entire world of soccer,” Checketts said, “and I don’t think anyone could have imagined that five years ago, three years ago, two years ago. It’s an incredible opportunity.”
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