Columbus, Ohio • The road to Japan starts now for Real Salt Lake, on a wet, frigid and possibly snowy night miles from home and a sloppy field that players fear could be as hard as a goalpost.
In its earliest start ever to a competitive season, RSL takes on the Columbus Crew on Tuesday night in its first game in the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League, an increasingly important regional tournament apart from Major League Soccer whose winner will gain entry into the prestigious Club World Cup in Japan in December.
"It's a huge, huge opportunity for us to really make a name for ourselves," coach Jason Kreis said.
Team officials have been targeting the tournament for months, carefully juggling lineups and plotting strategies throughout an unprecedented thicket of games last year, in order to advance through the group stage to the quarterfinals that start Tuesday night. During the offseason, they re-signed leading scorer Alvaro Saborio at least in part so he would be available to help them against the Crew.
The game Tuesday is the first leg of a two-game quarterfinal series that will be decided by total goals the return leg is March 1 at Rio Tinto Stadium and holds on the horizon the lure of a glamorous global experience that could pit RSL against some of the giants of world soccer.
"It kind of gets us on a level with these other teams in these big soccer countries," midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "It's pretty neat to be a part of that, and if we can get past this, we would be one step closer to maybe playing the Barcelonas and AC MilÂans, the big-name teams. ... We feel like we can do well. We'll just give it our all and hopefully it's good enough."
Don't expect sizzling soccer right away, however.
The wintertime kickoff forced both RSL and the Crew into abbreviated preseason training camps, and the weather conditions could further compromise what Kreis expects to be two "pretty rusty" teams apt to play conservatively and "probably be less willing to risk things."
Temperatures are expected in the 20s, with wind and possible snow. If it snows substantially, the teams will play with a yellow ball more visible to the players.
"It definitely changes the entire prospect of playing football and knocking it around easily," defender Robbie Russell said. "The ball's rock solid, the ground is going to be hard â¦ it's almost going to be like playing on turf you slide and you're going to leave a chunk of your skin behind. It will be a little uncomfortable, but we'll make do."
While Saborio is expected to start and potentially play the full 90 minutes after offseason knee surgery, RSL is coping with a couple of other injuries among its possible starters.
Forward Fabian Espindola did not practice for most of last week because of a quadriceps injury, and newly acquired midfielder Arturo Alvarez picked up a groin problem while missing much of the preseason training while on international duty with El Salvador.
Kreis said Alvarez is a "long shot" to start for RSL.
At least Salt Lake is not matched up against a team from Mexico or Central America in midseason form. The Crew are coping with all of the same logistical challenges as RSL, in addition to having revamped much of their roster during the offseason.
Coach Robert Warzycha no longer has spectacular midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto choreographing the attack Schelotto returned to Gimnasia La Plata in his native Argentina after the Crew did not pick up his contract option and the Crew have lost 10 players from the team that finished 14-8-8 in MLS last season. They added former RSL striker Jeff Cunningham, among the replacements.
Meanwhile, RSL was 15-4-11 before a shock exit in the first round of the playoffs, and with its long-established core of players appears to be much further along in developing team chemistry. It lost only forward Robbie Findley among its regulars from last season, and the coaching staff has been able to scout two of the Crew's preseason games.
"We think we have a pretty good handle on what they're going to look like," Kreis said.
The Crew are hardly in the dark about RSL, either, and probably are still annoyed at having been stunningly eliminated from the playoffs by an RSL team that scored three unanswered goals at Crew Stadium to begin its stunning march to the 2009 MLS Cup championship.
The teams also played a testy rematch at Rio Tinto Stadium last season that RSL won 2-0 part of its 33-game unbeaten streak in all competitions at home after posting on its video scoreboard disrespectful comments made by several Crew players that effectively called RSL a fluke champion.
"I keep saying this, we have to fight and battle with Columbus," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "Obviously, if we get a draw there, it's not a bad thing at all. â¦ [But] we've proven that we can win in weird circumstances in Columbus, so we're going to go out there, be organized and fight. We know we can play soccer, so once we do those two things first, the soccer is going to come out."
Russell is one of only a few RSL players who have experienced Champions League action and he did it years ago in Europe, reaching the group stage of the UEFA Champions League with Rosenborg of Norway, playing against such well-known teams as Arsenal, Panathinaikos and PSV Eindhoven.
"Those games are heart-stoppers," he recalled. "You just feel all that emotion, all that stress. They're the most exciting games you could play. And with the possibility of advancing and doing as well as we have, you can't ask for more tension and more excitement during a game."
Each of six regions around the world holds an annual Champions League for teams that won various national leagues or tournaments, with the winners advancing to the Club World Cup.
The 2011 Club World Cup will be held in Japan in December.
Real Salt Lake qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League "CONCACAF" stands for the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football by winning the 2009 Major League Soccer championship, while the Columbus Crew qualified by winning the league's regular-season title that same year.
FC Barcelona, Internacional and Manchester United are among the teams still alive in Champions Leagues in Europe, South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. CONCACAF Champions League
Real Salt Lake (USA) vs. Columbus (USA)
Olimpia (Honduras) vs. Saprissa (Costa Rica)
Cruz Azul (Mexico) vs. Santos Laguna (Mexico)
Toluca (Mexico) vs. Monterrey (Mexico)
Real Salt Lake vs. Columbus
P At Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Kickoff • 6 p.m. MST
TV • Fox Soccer Channel
Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 106.1 FM
CCL Records • RSL 4-1-1, Columbus 4-2-0
All-Time Series • Columbus leads, 8-6-1
Last Meeting • RSL 2, Columbus 0 (Aug. 14)
About RSL • It's trying to become the first Major League Soccer team to reach the Champions League semifinals. â¦ Forward Alvaro Saborio is expected to start after scoring six goals in six games during the group stage of the tournament, but new midfielder Arturo Alvarez is listed as questionable with a groin injury. â¦ Reserve midfielders Collen Warner and Jean Alexandre are unavailable due to suspensions for yellow-card accumulation in the group stage. â¦ It allowed the first goal in five of its six group-stage games, but came back to go 3-1-1 in those games.
About the Crew • Having lost five of the last eight meetings with RSL, they're adjusting to a major offseason overhaul that saw 10 players depart since last season. â¦ Forward Jeff Cunningham arrived as one of the replacements, having scored 19 of his 132 career regular-season goals as an RSL player. â¦ Jason Garey, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Frankie Hejduk all departed Â had combined to score nine of the Crew's 16 regular-season league goals against RSL.