RSL: Time for a showdown in the Champions League
RSL • Team receives a salary-budget bonus if it reaches the knockout round.
Published: October 23, 2012 12:53PM
Updated: February 7, 2013 11:32PM
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Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Real Salt Lake's Will Johnson poses for a portrait at Rio Tinto Stadium Wednesday April 18, 2012.

There is an unwritten rule in professional sports: Never put too much emphasis on one game because there’s always another just around the corner. Don’t add pressure to your situation because it could impact how you play.

RSL isn’t following the rules.

Real Salt Lake management, players and coaches freely admit the significance of the match heading into Tuesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League game against C.S. Herediano at Rio Tinto Stadium.

“It is a massive game,” general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “Pretending it’s not won’t make it go away. And I think everybody understands that — from the players in the locker room to the fans. They know what it’s all about.”

Midfielder Will Johnson agreed.

“Potentially,” he said, “it’s one of the top-five biggest games in the history in Real Salt Lake.”

Herediano is 3-0 in Group 2 of the Champions League, including a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in July.

RSL is 2-1 and, because of tiebreakers, it must win the showdown with the Costa Rican club by specific margins: 1-0 or by at least two goals.

If Real Salt Lake can’t do it, Herediano advances to the CONCACAF quarterfinal round in February and one of RSL’s major goals this season will go unfulfilled.

“This means everything for us — to get out of our group in CONCACAF,” Johnson said. “It’s a tournament that is great for the club. Recognition-wise, you put yourself on the map if you can consistently be one of the top teams in the [Champions] League.”

Real Salt Lake became the first team from the United States to reach the finals in 2011.

RSL eventually lost to Monterrey by a two-game aggregate score of 3-2, but it was a landmark effort that put the franchise on soccer’s worldwide map.

According to Lagerwey, the match against Herediano is his team’s most important since the loss to Monterrey.

“After that,” he said, “winning this competition became very important to us and, if we get to the knockout round, we’ll be on the precipice.”

Along with capturing a Major League Soccer championship, which RSL did in 2009, winning the Champions League “is the biggest goal of our club,” Lagerwey said.

“We’ve been pursuing this for a long time, and it’s incredibly hard,” he said. “But I think you find that difficult things are often worth the effort.”

Coach Jason Kreis remembers the hollow feeling his club experienced after losing to Monterrey. It’s something he wants to avoid against Herediano.

“For any professional player or coach in a competitive environment like this, it’s a chance to make history,” Kreis said. “It’s a chance to be the first U.S. team to win this tournament.

“We came so close last time that I think we all still have that taste in our mouths — wanting to get back there. And we know we have to have a result Tuesday in order to take the next step.”

There also is a business aspect to the match.

RSL must advance to receive a salary-budget bonus from Major League Soccer. Without it, RSL might be forced to disband its core group of players and start rebuilding.

The league provides the bonus to support teams advancing in Champions League since many need the financial help to retain the players who helped them qualify for the knockout rounds.

Without the bonus, Lagerwey told The Tribune last month that RSL likely will make some changes.

“I like to say if the team is successful and advances in Champions League, we have a big incentive to keep them together,” Lagerwey said. “And conversely, by succeeding in Champions League, we get more money, which allows us to keep the team together.”

The bottom line?

“Everybody knows we have to win,” forward Fabian Espindola said.

Real Salt Lake vs. Herediano

P At Rio TintoStadium

Kickoff • 8 p.m.

TV • Fox Soccer Channel

Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 102.3 FM

Records • Real Salt Lake 2-1; Herediano 3-0

Last meeting • Herediano, 1-0 (July 31)

About RSL • Overall, they are 6-1-2 in their last nine games and have outscored the opponents 12-3. ... Forward Alvaro Saborio has scored two of their three goals in the Champions League, but he won’t play because of yellow card accumulation.

About Herediano • Midfielder Elias Aguilar scored the only goal in the 14th minute of their 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake on July 31. ... They played with a one-man advantage over the final 32 minutes after a controversial red card on Real’s Nat Borchers.