SANDY, Utah – Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis insisted last week that his team were focused on their Friday matchup against the Vancouver Whitecaps, despite facing a long road trip to take on Costa Rican champions CS Herediano just four days later. You could tell he was holding back.
With their 2-1 win over the ‘Caps out of the way, however, Kreis couldn’t hold back the excitement in his voice about the upcoming run in the CONCACAF Champions League, their first since falling short in the final against Monterrey in 2011. And that begins on Tuesday (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer).
“I’m ready," he beamed. "I’m ready right now to go home and scout Herediano and do everything we can so that we are very properly prepared. Our players are right now automatically starting their [regeneration] process and preparing their bodies for Tuesday. This is a big, big deal to our club, a big, big deal to our fans and a huge deal to everybody in the locker room.”
On paper, RSL begin the group stage with their toughest match. The trip to San José, Costa Rica, is around 3,500 miles, and when they arrive they’ll have the cauldron of the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica awaiting them. It is something the coach and players have stuck in their minds from the last time the team was in the CCL.
"I remember a tremendously hostile environment," defender Tony Beltran said. "I remember the buildup for the game, driving to the stadium the fans walking, chanting, hitting our bus. It's intimidating but it is also really fun to play in that environment."
Added Kreis: "I have memories about how loud it was in the stadium while we were in the locker room and hour and a half before the game, and then when we went out for the warmup, I couldn't believe how loud they were yelling at our players and sneering at them. I couldn't believe it I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is warmup.’ … and then to go out for the game, it was just incredibly loud and raucous from Minute 1 to Minute 90."
It could be intimidating for any team, especially one that may not have been through it before. But that is where RSL may have an advantage.
"I think we have a lot of the same guys around that played a lot of minutes in that competition," midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "The group stage is tougher this year for sure. You are probably going to have to find some points on the road somewhere. Maybe it is just a point, maybe it's three points, but I think we did fairly well in the past year in that competition on the road."
The group stage may be tougher simply because there isn't as much room for error. The tournament format was changed this year so that each of the 24 teams were put into a three-team pod, with each playing a home and away, and with only the top team advancing to the knockout stages. With that format, RSL know that while a loss certainly doesn't eliminate them, a result may be necessary in all four games.
"We think [it will be necessary]," Kreis said. "That's the mentality we are going to go into this with is that at the very, very least we need to draw in this first game. I'm not saying we are going to play for a draw because that is not our style, but we believe there isn't any room for error."