Real Salt Lake: CONCACAF quarterfinal like early "playoffs"
Usually, when pro sports teams begin a season, they take a few weeks to loosen up and get back into top shape, rediscover their rhythm, grind away in two-a-days for a while, then throw in a few meaningless practice games no pressure just to get a handle on how things are coming along and, finally, kick off the year with one of the dozens of games that all count equally toward the pursuit of a championship.
Not so, Real Salt Lake.
Not this year.
Not only has the team embarked on what will be the shortest preseason in its history, but it will conclude that preseason with what amounts to a playoff series a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against the Columbus Crew that team officials have characterized as perhaps their top priority this year.
That's like the Jazz jumping from training camp straight into an NBA playoffs, but the players say they're excited for the opportunity, especially after their unexpectedly early exit from the Major League Soccer playoffs barely two months ago.
"It's like we have another chance at the playoffs right away," midfielder Kyle Beckerman said.
"Right away" being the key words.
The first leg of the two-game series with the Crew is Feb. 22 in Columbus that's nearly a month before RSL's league opener at San Jose on March 19 meaning the team will have barely four weeks to prepare. It has already started the first of two preseason stretches in Arizona, and players say they are prepared for an unusually paced training camp.
"It's going to be completely different than what we've ever done," defender Nat Borchers said. "It's exciting, though, because normally when you play preseason games, they don't mean anything other than, you know, a game for fitness or a game to get the dynamic back on the same page. Now these games mean something. â¦ The focus is there from Day One."
The CONCACAF Champions League is a competition apart from the regular MLS schedule, and RSL earned its shot at the Crew by advancing out of the group stage last fall.
It qualified for the tournament for the first time by winning the MLS Cup championship in 2009, and it hopes to become the first American team to win it and reach the prestigious Club World Cup in Japan where it would face other regional champions that could include powerful teams such as FC Barcelona, Chelsea or Santos FC.
"I'm really excited about it," Beckerman said. "It's a benefit for us to have something that close to focus on right from the start. A lot of times, you get into the preseason and it [a meaningful game] just seems so far away. But this? This is great. Some of us already have our playoff beards."
Many of his teammates agreed.
Midfielder Will Johnson said he would rather have it this way all the time because then "you're not grinding for six weeks of preseason. It's going to be a quick turnaround here. It will go by really quickly, and it's great that we have important games we've got playoff games to start the year. It's fantastic. So I think that's a big bonus."
It helps that RSL is playing the Crew, a fellow MLS team that's also just getting ready for its season, rather than a team from Central America that's already in midseason form.
The Crew have the added challenge of rebuilding after an offseason overhaul of their roster.
"Certainly, it should help," RSL's Chris Wingert said. "It just doesn't guarantee anything."
The biggest challenge for RSL might be integrating new players, such as midfielder Arturo Alvarez, into a core group that has been together for a couple of years now. Forward Alvaro Saborio is still recovering from offseason knee surgery, too, and contradicted team officials last week when he said he wasn't sure he would be ready to play against the Crew.
Still, most of the guys were looking at the bright side.
"I really feel like the coaching staff, in the past, has been really good at getting us ready for situations," said defender Robbie Russell, who, indeed, reported to camp with a thick black beard. "I think this is kind of a test for everybody. â¦ But it's not like we don't know what we're up against. We know there's not much time. We know it's a big game for us. So I think they'll do everything in their power to have us prepared."
RSL will play the Columbus Crew in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
The first leg of the two-game series is Feb. 22 in Columbus, with the return leg March 1 at Rio Tinto Stadium. The series will be decided by total goals, with the winner advancing to meet either Saprissa of Costa Rica or Olimpia of Honduras in the semifinals later in March.