Goalkeeper Nick Rimando has said all along that advancing as far as Real Salt Lake has in the CONCACAF Champions League won't mean anything unless it wins the prestigious international tournament.
Finally, the team gets its chance.
After a long and impressive march through the group and knockout stages, RSL opens its two-game Champions League finals series on the road against Monterrey of Mexico on Wednesday night Â hoping it can produce an encouraging result that will give it a good opportunity to hoist the continental championship trophy in front of home fans after the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 27.
"We have to look at it that way," coach Jason Kreis said. "What an awesome thing this could be to go down there, work our tails off and get some kind of positive result â¦ and come back here with the opportunity to hold up that trophy in front of what I'm sure would be a sold-out stadium."
What an opportunity, indeed.
Winning the tournament would deliver RSL to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan later this year, where it would meet regional champions from around the world including the likes of FC Barcelona or Manchester United.
Not since the Los Angeles Galaxy won a smaller version of the tournament in 2000 has a Major League Soccer team won the continental championship.
"When we were looking at it from outside before we started group play last year, I don't think anybody expected that we would get this far," defender Nat Borchers said. "It just shows how good a team we are. At the end of the day that we can match up with these premier teams from Central America and Mexico and do well. Says how far we've come in the years since the club has been rebuilt. It's just so huge of an opportunity for our club."
Taking advantage of it, though, means coping with warm temperatures for the first leg at Estadio Tecnologico temperatures at game time are expected to be around 90 degrees Â and a Monterrey team that dispatched domestic rival Cruz Azul in the tournament semifinals while RSL was beating Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica.
Coaches and players said Los Rayados are an aggressive and fast-paced attacking team that they expect to work hard for a decisive victory, knowing they have to return to the virtually impenetrable confines of Rio Tinto Stadium for the second leg of a series that will be decided by combined goals.
RSL is unbeaten in 37 straight games at home in all competitions, and won both its quarterfinal and semifinal homes games in Champions League play.
"Our mentality is to play aggressive soccer, even if we're on the road first," Rimando said. "That's the best way we know how to play. Obviously, the defense is on your mind and you want to play the best defense you can because you're on the road. Any home team that has that first leg is going to be offensive. We got to be ready for that."
While RSL is leading MLS with four wins in four league games, Los Rayados stand seventh overall in Mexico's Primera Division standings for the current summer season, and won the Champions League in 1993 when it was smaller and still called the Champions Cup. They also have won four Primera Division championships including the latest one.
In other words, conquest won't come easy for RSL.
"It's going to be tough," midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "We have to keep the ball and do well with it. We can't defend too much, because if they're keeping the ball and we're playing defense the whole time we're not going to have any energy to go forward, so we're going to have to be disciplined with our possessions and make our chances count."
Real Salt Lake at Monterrey
P At Estadio Tecnologico, Monterrey, Mexico
Kickoff • 8 p.m. MDT
TV • Fox Soccer Channel, Telefutura
Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 106.1 FM
CCL records • RSL 6-2-2; Monterrey 8-0-2
All-time series • First meeting
About RSL • It's 6-1-1 this year in all competitions, having outscored opponents 15-4 combined. â¦ Forward Alvaro Saborio leads the team with eight goals in Champions League. â¦ Midfielder Will Johnson is expected to return after missing a league game against Colorado with a red-card suspension while nursing a broken thumb, but forward Paulo Junior is doubtful with a hamstring strain suffered in a reserve league game. â¦ Coach Jason Kreis said winning the finals would "easily be a once in a lifetime experience."
About the Rayados • Sitting seventh in Mexico's Primera Division summer season, they have not lost in Champions League play. â¦ Forward Jesus Aldo De Nigris leads the team with four goals in Champions League, while midfielder Neri Raul Cardozo has added three goals. â¦ It has scored 10 of its 16 goals in Champions League after halftime.
Path to the finals
Country • Mexico
Year founded • 1945
Champions League record • 8-0-2
Feb. 23 • Monterrey 1, Toluca 0
March 2 • Monterrey 1, Toluca 0
March 16 • Monterrey 2, Cruz Azul 1
April 6 • Monterrey 1, Cruz Azul 1
Note • Monterrey has allowed one goal or less in 8 of its 10 games.
REAL SALT LAKE
Country • United States
Year founded • 2004
Champions League record • 6-2-2
Feb. 22 • RSL 0, Columbus 0
March 1 • RSL 4, Columbus 1
March 15 • RSL 2, Saprissa 0
April 5 • Saprissa 2, RSL 1
Note • MLS squads are winless in 24 competitive games in Mexico.