Monson: Must-win for Real Salt Lake turns into more heartbreak
The way Real Salt Lake figured it, Tuesday night's match against Costa Rican club Herediano was so far beyond a must-win situation, it blew straight to fundamental obligation.
To themselves, individually, and to the core of the team, to its present and future, to pride, to economics, to basic soccer existentialism.
It didn't just want to win.
It had to win.
But â¦ Real didn't win, fighting instead to a costly 0-0 draw with the visitors in the final of group play in CONCACAF Champions League competition at rainy and cold Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL is now eliminated.
Afterward, coach Jason Kreis talked about the result, calling it frustrating, cursing bad luck, and saying he was "proud of the men out there, we did everything we wanted to do â¦ except [get] that final touch."
Right from jump, RSL had a thousand an exaggeration, but only a slight one missed chances to score, the easiest of which was a Fabian Espindola shot in the sixth minute that skipped off the crossbar after Herediano goalkeeper Leo Moreira had fallen by the wayside. In the 16th minute, Nat Borchers' header hit the net but was waved off because of a foul.
More RSL shots were stopped and blocked, including a rocket near the end of the half from Javier Morales that Moreira knocked away with a leaping punch. Clearly, Real was in control, but being thwarted. It tried to stay patient and continue to possess the ball, which it did. Still, the pressure built as the game progressed. And the longer it went, the more Herediano fell back into a defensive shell, fiddle-faddling around, acting out every skid and bump, to waste more and more time.
"It is frustrating," Kreis said. "If you put 11 players just outside your penalty box, it's hard to score against that. â¦ I expected Herediano to come out and play a little more soccer tonight."
Instead, the Costa Rican club "muddled it up," said Kreis, "faking injuries. For me, it's ugly."
Herediano, after all, didn't have to win.
That was RSL's duty, the whole affair having certain stipulations unique to the CCL with which most fans around here are familiar. Because of the way the tournament had broken down, RSL, which had lost to Herediano by one goal in July, had to not only beat its opponent, it had to win by a 1-0 score or by multiple goals in order to advance to the quarterfinal.
If you have to ask about those details now, you probably don't care enough to bother.
But for RSL enthusiasts who mirror their team's emphasis on Champions League, which is separate from Major League Soccer, the game against Herediano was beyond big. It was the gateway to the same international fun experienced by RSL a year and a half ago, when the club made history on its way to the doorstep of the CCL championship, losing in the final to Monterrey.
That was head-spinning, nerve-wracking, heart-wrenching stuff.
And it was terrific soccer.
But it also left Real's players unfulfilled and empty.
Making it to that point in the tournament was significant to RSL as far as name recognition on the international level went and because of financial considerations granted by MLS to any team that succeeds in Champions League. Beyond what some MLS clubs do, RSL has made CCL play a priority, for the stated reasons, but also because the team's higher profile helps it sign better international players.
Alvaro Saborio, who did not play Tuesday night because of yellow card accumulation, came to Salt Lake in part on account of the team's good fortune in past CCL play.
The MLS Cup is Job 1 around here, but Champions League is equally important. After the earlier run, making it to that North American final, Real kept its aging mainline players together for another shot at breaking through. Failing Tuesday night meant that core likely will be altered for competitive and financial reasons.
So, there RSL was, working for its glory in the wet cold at Rio Tinto, playing for the present and against an uncertain future. Everything was at its feet.
But it didn't happen, the feet didn't cooperate.
"We performed very well," Kreis said. "We were just a little unlucky."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.