Lehi • Nobody on Real Salt Lake was more excited to learn its upcoming opponent in the prestigious CONCACAF Champions League than forward Alvaro Saborio.
It's his former team, Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica.
"It's going to be a weird experience," he said, "because they are my team, they are my fans. â¦ I have a lot of memories from this club."
Just the same, Saborio is thrilled for the chance to return to his native country and play in front of friends, family members and his old fans at the intimidating stadium he once called home. The 28-year-old forward scored 95 goals in five years with Saprissa, and he even won the CONCACAF Champions League with the team in 2005 before taking his career overseas.
"I'm excited to see Sabo's old stomping grounds," said midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who has vacationed in Costa Rica.
The teams will play the first leg of the two-game semifinal series at Rio Tinto Stadium on March 15, and they won't play the second at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa AymÃ¡ in San Jose about 90 minutes from where Saborio grew up until April 5.
The winner advances to meet either Cruz Azul or Monterrey of Mexico in the finals for the right to advance to the Club World Cup in Japan.
"It's exciting," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "They have a lot of history with that team and a lot of history in this tournament. So they're experienced, and we're expecting a good series."
While RSL is just 6 years old with one MLS Cup trophy to its credit, Saprissa was founded in 1935 and has won 29 domestic championships in Costa Rica the most of any team along with five Central American titles and three CONCACAF Champions League titles (though the tournament was known as the Champions Cup until 2008).
Although Saborio said he still knows all the players on the team, including former RSL defender Douglas Sequeira, he doubts he can lend much insight into the team's tactics because it has changed coaches since he played there.
Still, "we're going to lean on him, for sure," coach Jason Kreis said.
Kreis believes the teams are well matched and that each enjoys a distinct home-field advantage.
RSL plays at high elevation and is riding a 34-game unbeaten streak at home, while Saprissa enjoys a notoriously rowdy fan base and plays on artificial turf at "The Monster's Cave" so named because the team is known as "The Purple Monster" because of the pulsating energy of its crowd.
"Turf versus altitude," Kreis said. "That's a push."
Players and coaches believe they could have an edge playing at home first, so long as they take advantage of it with an emphatic victory. That could be important because of the intimidation factor RSL might face in Costa Rica.
Rimando recalled having coins thrown at him when he was with the U.S. national team for a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in San Jose, and Kreis remembered "rocks being thrown at buses and bags of urine being thrown on the field" while playing there a couple of times with the U.S. national team.
"Those sorts of things I think have been since cleaned up a little bit," he said, "so I don't know if we'll have to face that. But the crowd is right on top of you, and the stadium presents the feeling of being in a dangerous place."
On the field, Kreis said defense will be the biggest key in whether RSL advances, and its back line will be at full strength with defenders Nat Borchers and Tony Beltran returning from red-card suspensions.
Saprissa's Armando Alonso scored two of his team's three goals in its quarterfinal victory over Olimpia of Honduras.
"We're going to have to be really sound defensively," Kreis said, "to not allow some of their gifted players too much time and space on the ball. Really play compact because, if we open it up, we're going to open ourselves up to some guys who can get in behind us."
RSL vs. Saprissa
P March 15 at Rio Tinto Stadium
Kickoff • 8 p.m.
TV • Fox Soccer Channel, Galavision