On verge of global achievement, RSL is the toast of MLS
In some ways, it seems like just yesterday that Real Salt Lake was simply trying to establish itself as a viable sports franchise in Utah, and ensure its survival in a crowded market with a sport that hardly ranked at the top of the list for most fans.
Yet, here it is, almost on the top of the world.
The team that only three years ago was among the worst in Major League Soccer has so completely transformed itself that it's widely regarded now as the league's model franchise and one that is facing a historic opportunity in the CONCACAF Champions League finals that begin Wednesday night.
"It's an opportunity to stamp Real Salt Lake's presence on the entire world of soccer," majority owner Dave Checketts said Monday, "and I don't think anybody could have imagined that five years ago, three years ago, or even two years ago."
Not even close.
But since coming out of nowhere to win the 2009 MLS Cup championship, RSL has established itself as clearly the best team in the league it's riding a 17-game regular-season unbeaten streak, and has won all four league games this season and one that can reach the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup if it can beat Monterrey of Mexico in the two-game Champions League finals series.
Coach Jason Kreis said that would "easily be a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
And everybody knows it.
The entire league has rallied around RSL, to the point that fellow owners have been calling and emailing Checketts with good-luck wishes, and the Philadelphia Union were willing to postpone their April 23 game at RSL until September to allow RSL more time to recover and prepare for the second leg of the series at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 27.
Commissioner Don Garber praised the team and its management on a national television broadcast last week, and plans to attend the first leg at the Estadio Tecnologico in Monterrey, while players around the league have been a strong voice in support of RSL on Twitter.
"They all recognize what's at stake here for the league, and we are flying a banner that says not only Real Salt Lake, but it says Major League Soccer," Checketts said. "It's an enormous dose of credibility" for the league to have a team advance this far.
RSL is the first MLS team to reach the finals of the tournament which is separate from league play since the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2000, when the tournament was still known as the Champions Cup and its field was much smaller.
Now, the Champions League starts with 24 championship teams from all over the CONCACAF region that's an acronym that stands for the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football and RSL qualified for the first time by winning the MLS Cup.
It has advanced through the group and knockout stages with a rare focus on the tournament and a deft handling of the lineup while juggling a congested schedule, and now faces the prospect of an accomplishment even greater than its MLS Cup title.
"For me, this is about what we've done over the last three years and a couple of months" in building the roster, Kreis said.
The finals series will be decided by the total goals scored in both games, a common format in international soccer. Goals scored on the road act as the first tiebreaker if the aggregate is even, making RSL's first leg in the 90-degree heat of Monterrey particularly important.
The team will earn $500,000 if it wins the tournament, while the winner of the Club World Cup where RSL could meet the likes of Manchester United or FC Barcelona later this year takes home $5 million.
One thing at a time, though.
While players and coaches are thrilled to have advanced this far, to a man they have declared that it won't mean anything if they can't hoist the trophy in front of their home fans following the second leg next week.
"I'm proud of the club and the way they conduct themselves and the way they play the style of play and could not be happier to be here," Checketts said. "We're happy, but we're not satisfied."
Champions League finals
Wednesday • RSL at Monterrey, 8 p.m. MDT. TV • Fox Soccer, TeleFutura
April 27 • Monterrey at RSL, 8 p.m. MDT. TV • Fox Soccer