There have been too few moments in Major League Soccer that have really united the national soccer community.
Sure, there have been all-star victories over English Premier teams. There has been the rise and fall of Freddy Adu. David Beckham’s decision to join this evolving experiment certainly generated national buzz, if not global attention.
But the league has often languished in semi-obscurity, struggling to elevate its TV ratings beyond reruns of the pro bowling circuit and roller derby. Now, for the first time, the league has a team — despite the shackles of a salary cap — that has assembled a group of players that are creating a defining moment for Major League Soccer.
It really matters that Real Salt Lake advanced to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League — on its own merit. It now is set to play Mexican powerhouse Monterrey in a two-legged final beginning April 18. The winner advances to the World Club Championships — which would be a first for an MLS club.
Finally, there is an American team commanding some respect among the soccer nations of Latin America, if not Europe.
Finally, there is a team that is distinguishing itself, lifting itself beyond the league’s self-imposed rule that all MLS teams should be created equally, should share in the revenues equally and should restrict player salaries equally.
Mind you, this is a financially prudent business principle that has kept a struggling pro soccer league alive for many lean years during its brief moment (16 years) in time. But such a philosophy does stifle excellence; it kills even the dream of a dynasty. There will be no New York Cosmos-type dominance in the MLS, the bigwigs probably said in unison more than once.
So, it’s all the more impressive that Real Salt Lake has been able to find a way to create a team of distinction, to dream big and set new standards of excellence. To perhaps even create a dynasty for others to aspire and then exceed.
RSL’s composed, two-legged victory over Saprissa in the semi-finals revealed a mature team full of self-belief. Even more impressive: Salt Lake had the confidence to take the game to Saprissa at the Costa Rican’s home field — a difficult place for any visiting team let alone the second leg of a Champions League semi-final match.
“Rarely was Saprissa dangerous in the first 45 minutes, a credit to the tactically compact RSL formation, which kept the ‘Purple Monster’ attackers in front of them,” wrote Simon Borg of MLS.Com. “The best looks for Saprissa came on shots from the perimeter of the RSL penalty area.”
In the MLS, Salt Lake is already proving to be a team of distinction. First, it captured the MLS Cup two years ago, upsetting a favored LA Galaxy. Last season, it finished second in the contest for the Supporter’s Shield — just four points shy of the Galaxy — that many believe is a more true indication of the best team over the season.
RSL had the stingiest defense in the league last season, giving up less than one goal per game and producing the most shutouts, at 15. It scored 45 goals — the highest number in the league. And it played a brand of attractive, possession-oriented soccer that has been winning over the neutrals and the Euro skeptics.
“They are a good team that plays good soccer,” said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. “Theyve got a good self belief. They are a very confident team, and I think based on that confidence, probably makes them the best team right now in the league.”
And now Salt Lake is about enter the world’s stage of soccer. If it can defeat Monterrey, it can show this wider audience that American soccer, MLS soccer, is not only relevant and competitive but also fusing something new that that is emerging from American soil.
“We might be seeing a team (that) might be a model for an American style,” said Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice president for competition, who has been attending the Real Salt Lake CCL matches since the quarterfinals.
“There is a blend and fusion of Latin American cunning and technical quality embodied by Javiar Morales thats blended with an American resilience, work ethic and competitive spirit embodied by Kyle Beckerman and Nate Borchers, and there is a European discipline and cohesion with them,” Rodriguez said.
The MLS has made it a priority to support MLS teams that reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League. It approved a policy to offer allocation money to Columbus and Real so both teams could keep their best players or find new ones to strengthen the squad — outside of the salary cap. The league rescheduled matches for RSL to keep the team fresh and it helped pay for a chartered plane to send the team to Costa Rica.
“Its incredibly significant for us to have a team advance to the final and its a priority for us to win this competition once and for all,” Rodriguez said.
If RSL were to pull it off, it could quite possibly turn into one of the defining moments of American soccer — perhaps even greater than the U.S. National Team advancing to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. It would certainly jolt the soccer elitists amongst us to wake up and take notice of something special happening here. It would put Real Salt Lake and the MLS on a global stage for all the world to notice.
“We think thats really important,” Rodriguez said. “The experiences that the clubs and players gain will only continue to fuel our evolution as a soccer nation. It will showcase how far weve come in 16 short years, and hopefully showcase where we think well be going.”
Players such as Kasey Keller, himself no stranger to the big stage, realize the significance for RSL to just reach the finals of a competition that has been dominated mostly by the top Mexican teams.
“I think its a great showcase for MLS,” said Keller. “Real has proved over the last couple of years that they are the most consistent team in the league. Im happy for them.”