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Stories of the Year, No. 2: Destiny denied for RSL

As the Best of 2011 series continues on, we're counting down the 11 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We'll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 21 until Dec. 31, when we unveil what our editors voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2011.

Real Salt Lake's dramatic charge to the CONCACAF Champions League comes in at No. 2. Senior content producer Simon Borg looks back at RSL's run, and what went wrong in the end.

Who can be blamed for thinking this one was “in the bag” for Real Salt Lake?

The first MLS team to advance to a CONCACAF Champions League final, RSL had already done the heavy lifting by snatching a 2-2 first-leg tie in Monterrey, Mexico. All they needed to do was close out the affair at the fortress that was Rio Tinto Stadium, where they were riding a 37-match unbeaten streak, and a place in history would be theirs.

by Nat Borchers


Real Salt Lake vs. Monterrey

Walking onto the field before the game at Rio Tinto Stadium was incredible. It was jam-packed with people, and nobody sat the entire game. The excitement in that stadium before the game was a very special moment for me.

I remember the goal (above). I remember exactly, from start to finish, how they scored. I remember feeling helpless to stop it. They were such a good team, and if you allowed them to possess the ball in your end for long periods of time, you were gonna get punished. They just punished us, really in the last tick of the clock before halftime. We were pretty shell-shocked. We knew we’d played them so well for the majority of the half, and then to give up a goal so easily, it was definitely a shocker to everyone in the locker room.

I don’t remember much after the game. I remember thinking what a huge opportunity we’d let slip by. I was thinking we may never get back there again, and that was the hardest thing to understand about that game. It had taken so much work to get there – winning MLS Cup, all the preliminary rounds, the quarters, the semis – and then to get to that point was very difficult to wrap our heads around.

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It felt like everything had fallen perfectly for a well-oiled RSL machine to clinch an unprecedented berth for a US club in the FIFA Club World Cup. And we’re not just talking about the miraculous 89th-minute strike by Javier Morales to equalize in dramatic fashion down at Monterrey’s “El Tec.”

It started with the draw for the knockout rounds, which was tailor-made for an RSL run to the final by postponing an inevitable date with Mexican opposition to the final hurdle. The MLS league office even helped chartered planes, league fixture dates were rearranged and club management made all the moves to keep the team’s core together precisely for this CCL run.

And the pressure was squarely on RSL from the start, when they ousted fellow MLS side Columbus Crew at home in a tense quarterfinal series. Jason Kreis’ squad was looser and more confident against Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa in the semis, buoyed by a 2-0 first-leg home win. RSL showed off all their experience in withstanding a furious comeback in the cauldron of the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium.   

By the time the finals against Monterrey rolled around, all of American soccer was infatuated with RSL. Whether it was because they were the lone team left carrying the US flag, or perhaps it was the rivalry between the US and Mexico, the #MLS4RSL campaign was in full force.

After all, what was there not to like about this RSL team? They were an honest, hard-working side, made up largely of players who were afterthoughts before arriving in Salt Lake. They were also a soccer Cinderella story: In just six years, RSL went from sputtering expansion team to being on the cusp of international success with an aggressive, attractive, attack-minded style.

Even without suspended captain Kyle Beckerman, it always felt like destiny was on RSL’s side in that second leg. And the first minutes against Monterrey played out just like the fairytale script called for, with RSL eating up the visitors in front of a rabid crowd, out for blood and the one goal that would surely liquidate the Rayados for good.

by Alan Black
San Francisco Chronicle

Then something happened. The magic vanished.

RSL marksmen Álvaro Saborío and Fabián Espíndola missed on several golden chances and then Monterrey’s Humberto Suazo played the role of foil, converting his team’s only shot on goal of the entire 90 minutes. And it was the worst kind of goal to take for RSL – just before halftime.

But maybe destiny meant there would be one final dramatic twist? One goal was all RSL needed. But Jámison Olave’s header was swatted away by Monterrey’s ‘keeper in the dying minutes. Reality set in.

And that reality was painful, leaving RSL dazed with a hangover that lasted for weeks. For long stretches, many wondered if RSL would ever recover. If we’d ever see the same Real Salt Lake team that charmed fans across the country.

Espíndola locked himself in his home for days after that second leg and couldn’t even bring himself to travel with his teammates for the next league game.

Most American soccer fans – specifically MLS fans – felt the same way: gutted.

Gutted by the knowledge that likely no American team would ever have the ever-elusive Champions League trophy on a platter quite like RSL did. Gutted by the question: When will the CCL drought end?

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