By James Morgan
Real Salt Lake (RSL) continued to advance its quest to bring international relevance to MLS Wednesday in a hard-fought draw eked out with a last minute goal against CF Monterrey (CFM).
RSL silenced many doubters before a sold-out crowd of nearly 32,000 Wednesday night at Estadio Tecnologico. The match was the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) Final and puts RSL in an excellent position to take the CCL cup as the second leg will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy Utah where RSL is enjoying a 37-game unbeaten streak and where CFM will struggle against cold weather, the altitude and a hostile crowd.
Wednesday evening’s match started fast with both sides making several shots on goal in the first 15 minutes of play. However, CFM seemed to have the legs of RSL and they scored first on a lucky bounce that forward Aldo De Nigris kicked in from the six. CFM Manager Victor Manuel Vucetitch then surprised with an early sub of Team Captain Ernesto Perez with Jesus Eduardo Zavala. A minute later Osvaldo Martinez came in for De Nigris.
RSL quickly regrouped, began to look the better team and scored in the 35th minute on a Nat Borcher header off an uncleared corner kick. RSL continued to dominate on possession for the rest of the half and repeatedly threatened to score.
The second half saw a reversal of fortunes as the sides swapped roles and an entirely different and even lackadaisical looking RSL took the field and was dominated for the bulk of remaining play by a seemingly rejuvenated CFM. “The second half I think we just ran out of gas,” said RSL team captain Kyle Beckerman.
In the 63rd minute, following a questionable handball called on RSL defender Jamison Olave, accomplished striker Humberto Suazo shot it into the right corner on a penalty kick. Matters were looking pretty grim for RSL as CFM continued to dominate on possession and chances, when midfielder Javier Morales saved the day with an 89th minute bullet inside the far post.
The second leg is set for April 27th.
Other Notes and questions:
Aldo De Nigris and Jesus Zavala for CFM, and team captain Kyle Beckerman for RSL, will all miss the second leg on accumulated yellow cards. Beckerman’s loss could be potentially huge for RSL. “He’s a guy that makes us tick, both on the field and off,” said goalkeeper nick Rimando, according to MLS’ official website. “And he’s bummed right now in the locker room. To see his head down is something that you never see, ever. But again, we keep saying that we pride ourselves on depth, and now we have a couple of players that can fill that position.” How well RSL is able to function without Beckerman will be key to their performance next Wednesday.
If RSL wins the CCL Final, it will be the first time an MLS side has done so. There has been some confusion on this point because both DC United and the LA Galaxy have won the CONCACAF Champions Cup, but without getting into the details, that was a different, smaller and far easier tournament.
Can CFM overcome RSL’ Rio Tinto mojo? RSL is unbeaten at home in 37 matches and it seems unlikely that CFM will end the streak, though certainly they are capable. CFM has been struggling in recent weeks in Mexican Premiere Division play, while RSL has been positively dominating it’s MLS opposition. If we are to go by momentum and home field advantage, a win at Rio Tinto for CFM does not seem likely. On the other hand, RSL’s performance in the second half of the match was worrisome and has to be at the top of Head Coach Jason Kreis’s list of problems.
The winning side will earn a berth at next December’s Club World Cup in Japan which again, provided RSL wins, will be another MLS first. (There’s been recent talk that the CWC may be moved from Japan due to its recent series of disasters and staggering economy, but these hare yet to be confirmed.)