Real Salt Lake and MLS stutter on the world stage
28 April ~ While Europe has been busy this week watching Manchester United and Barcelona line themselves up for the Champions League final, Central and North America were finishing off their own version of the competition last night in Sandy, a suburb of Salt Lake City. A team from MLS had reached the final of the Concacaf Champions League for the first time, and after a deserved 2-2 draw in the first leg at Monterrey last week, the presumptuously named Real Salt Lake looked poised to follow through and qualify for the Club World Cup. But in front of a sold-out home stadium, their 37-game unbeaten home run came to an end as they lost by a single goal to a Monterrey side that hadn't won for weeks.
The Salt Lake Tribune had touted a possible victory for the home team as "what many believe would be the greatest accomplishment in the history of American soccer". Introducing the game on Fox Soccer Channel, dweeb-friendly anchorman Christian Miles claimed that "all eyes of the football world are on little Sandy, Utah". The chance to have MLS represented in Japan next December was being sold as the league's biggest moment to date. Forget David Beckham and Thierry Henry. All of a sudden, the football itself was seen as the most important way to sell the league. As Salt Lake's general manager Garth Lagerwey put it: "We need fans of soccer in the United States to pay attention to our league. Right now they don't. We cannot expect to be given respect. We have to earn it."
On top of that, the league showed its support for Salt Lake by compiling a hokey video of slow-motion action moments juxtaposed with players and coaches from around the league wishing the team "good luck". (You can just see Arsène Wenger, Carlos Tévez and Steven Gerrard clubbing together to make a similar tribute to Manchester United before the match at Wembley next month.) But good luck, it turns out, is not enough to win championships. Having done the hard part by managing what few US club sides ever do – avoiding defeat in Mexico – Salt Lake became the victims of too much hype, and too much dreamy talk about striding out on to the world stage. They forgot to play their normal passing game, and it didn't help that their normally prolific strike partnership of Fabián Espíndola and former Bristol City loanee Álvaro Saborío both had absolute stinkers.
It wasn't luck that told, but class. Just before half-time, Monterrey put together a three-man passing move within the tight confines of the Salt Lake penalty area and the game's best player, Humberto Suazo, neatly finished the kind of move familiar to regulars at the Nou Camp. The home team's second-half response was hurried and hectic and, untypically for this team, it was typically MLS. That is, the kind of first touch that makes you wince, with all promising moves breaking down in the final third. The closing minutes saw the familiar long ball banged high towards the Monterrey box, but a toe-poked effort that went just wide in the final minute of injury time was the closest Salt Lake came to grabbing the honours.
Intense Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis stood in his trenchcoat casting shifty glances up and down the touchline, like a deviant set on committing some unspeakable act, but all too aware that he was under surveillance from cameras and 20,000 people. After years of praise for turning a virgin team (Real Salt Lake were founded in 2005) from the league's basket case into a solid, well-drilled unit, it was only right that Kreis suddenly looked like a hunted man. Against a team that's extremely comfortable on the ball and swiftly confident on the counter-attack, MLS had again come up against its limits. There were no answers on the bench, or within the team's tactical scope.
That will change over the coming years, but for now MLS has a bit of a hangover to shake off before returning to the dried bread and salt water of regular-season play. No one's jaunting off to Japan just yet to take on the globe's big names. Maybe now's the time to console them by whispering gently in their ears that no one else gives a potted toss about the Club World Cup. Ian Plenderleith
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