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

Comments (12)
Comment by Rogin the Armchair Fan 2011-04-28 11:30:16

"Real Salt Lake", indeed. The MLS might want to look at coming up with some club names that don't sound like ones a 14-year-old would call his entry in a newspaper fantasy league competition.

Comment by lvii 2011-04-28 14:29:36

It's not easy being a soccer fan here in the 'States. I'd like to thank you for doing your small part to make it just a little bit harder by mocking a league that's had just 16 years as part of our sporting culture (compared to, say, the over century and a half in England), and which is just now realizing how to properly do youth development in football. I also wish to thank you for characterizing a tournament that showcases a concept the rest of the world finds symbolic of that which only the greatest sport known to man can do, crowning a true world champion, as an endeavor "no one" (meaning Europe and only Europe) cares about. Milan, Inter, Barca, and Man U all seemed pretty ecstatic to be raising that trophy, by the way, and I know the Brazilian winners cared.

I'm not even an RSL supporter, I'm an Everton supporter from New York waiting for the Cosmos to get their top-flight license because it is quite embarrassing rooting for a team named after an energy drink from New Jersey, but this loss is causing heartbreak across the US and Canada. I certainly feel it today.

I love this website, I love English football, I love watching all levels of soccer around the world. This is a very disappointing thing to read. We're trying to grow this awesome game in North America. Take your potshots as we face hurdles and growing pains, feel free, because we're not done progressing, not by a long shot.

Comment by jameswba 2011-04-28 15:02:42

@lvii, I have to say I didn't read it in the same way. The article praises the way Salt Lake usually play, acknowledges that they're a young club whose coach has done some fine work and suggests that (at least as I understand the last para) clubs from the league will eventually overcome their limitations. The way Salt Lake were obviously found out against Monterrey actually reminded me of what used to happen to English clubs in European competition in the early/mid-90s.

I'll admit I know next to nothing about MLS but I did see the USA national team (not at full strength, apparently) play here in Slovakia 18 months ago and it was clear to me then that the players with European experience (especially Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Bradley, Dempsey) were confident and accomplished while the one or two from MLS (most notably Conor Casey) were very limited. But, for now, that's to be expected. As you say, it's a young league that needs to find the right way to grow. That'll need support, patience and perhaps a realisation that bringing in Beckham, Henry etc might not be the way to go.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I think your last 10 words are dead right and the league will indeed go on improving, just as the national team has done/is doing.

Comment by imp 2011-04-28 15:11:26

@lvii. You're being over-sensitive. I'm not mocking the league, I'm saying that it possibly damaged Salt Lake's chances by placing too much pressure on them, and by over-playing the importance of one single game. I'm not going to mention in every single MLS piece that the league's 16 years old and that it's still developing both its players, and as an entity (see last week's Thierry Henry article). Part of that development is taking criticism on board, and the league's not helped when its fans or the teams' front offices respond to criticism by whining that everything not cheerleading MLS is "a pot shot". In fact, too much hype and cheerleading could well have been a factor in RLS's disappointing play. They haven't made the Club World Cup, but it's probably too soon - now's the time to examine what went wrong and see how to go that extra step and beat a good Mexican team. Ian.

Comment by goldstone97 2011-04-28 15:55:30

A little curious not to mention that RSL's captain and fulcrum of the team was missing (Kyle Beckerman). That clearly had a significant impact in their failure to control this game at all.

Comment by imp 2011-04-28 17:51:18

To describe Beckermann as the team's "fulcrum" is an over-statement, I think - I do rate him, but he doesn't necessarily offer a lot that his replacements, such as Grabavoy, can't replicate. I don't think he would necessarily have made much difference, because it was the failure of Espindola and Saborio to click that really hobbled the team, while Morales, Johnson and Williams (and Alvarez when he came on) all had under-par nights and difficulty finding space. That said, maybe the missing captain was an important psychological hole. And you're right, I should have mentioned it anyway. In mitigation, it was very late...

Comment by radmonkey 2011-04-28 20:20:41

Honestly, I thought RSL created more chances than they did @Monterrey. The main difference was finishing and form. Saborio and Espindola just didn't have it last night, just like El Chupete Suazo failed to convert his chances last week @Monterrey, last night...he did finish and that made all the difference.
Espindonla had two clear chances at goal and he failed twice. If he makes either of them, you're writing a completely different article.
Yes, you could fault RSL for being typically "MLS" with their long-balls disjointed passing in the final third and etc. But then, what was Monterrey doing last week if not the same thing? Was it also being "typically MLS" when they pumped longball after longball to Suazo for 2nd half? I think they had an off-night and let the nerves get to them. As well as Monterrey giving it their all for 90 minutes, last week RSL seemed to take them by surprise. You could tell that they clearly did not expect an MLS team to keep the ball on the ground and maintain possession so easily, if you saw the game Beckerman was a huge part of that.
Monterrey seemed to be more ready for this game and they were hungry for that goal.

I do think losing Beckerman was huge, I don't think Grabavoy can replicate what Beckerman brings to the table. They're clearly two different players. Beckerman creates the link between the midfield and defense in a better way. He constantly gives the players around him an outlet pass, he rarely loses the ball at his feet and knows to to get out of trouble and he's smart about his passes. He rarely gives the ball away. He's the white Shalrie Joseph in MLS. You can't replace off the bench, no team in MLS has that luxury. I really do think he's the fulcrum of RSL, along with Morales.
Meanwhile, Grabavoy....just doesn't. He's an MLS journeyman, the sort of which make Logan Pause and Brian Carroll seem like all-stars in comparison.
He clearly didn't step up to replace Beckerman last night. Defensively, yes...with the ball at his

Comment by imp 2011-04-28 21:36:17

If that is the case (and I think it's a case you exaggerate), then you've nailed another reason why MLS teams aren't good enough to beat Mexican clubs right now - lack of depth. Monterrey were missing several key starters through injury and suspension, but actually played better without them than they did in the first leg.
Salt Lake, meanwhile, plays well when it plays well as a team, regardless of Beckermann's presence - its stats when he's missing: played ten, won seven, tied three.

Comment by UncleTupelo 2011-04-30 03:46:22

A bit harsh of Espindola, who I thought was on of RSL's better players on the night. He's not the most technically gifted South American player around, but he's got a lot of heart and hustle. Clearly wasn't enough on the night though.

Saborio was awful and Alvarez was atrocious when he came on. I considered Alvarez a great pick up for Salt Lake, but he's not fitting quite how I'd hoped.

Shame Jamison Olave is getting on a bit, as I think he could pull his (quite considerable) weight in the Premier League or The Championship.

Not the end of the world for RSL. They're still my favourites to challenge New York for the MLS Cup this year.

Comment by imp 2011-04-30 18:39:38

Fair point on Espindola, Uncle T - I was probably comparing his performance with the previous week in the first leg, when he was excellent. For all his effort, though, his finishing was wild, and the ball kept getting stuck under his feet, which was really frustrating to watch.

Comment by UncleTupelo 2011-04-30 21:32:46

Yeah, he was far from the worst player on the pitch, but you're right about the ball constantly getting stuck under his feet. I was going to mention that.

That said, the amount of times he got the ball stuck under his feet, only to magically bounce it past two or three Monterrey players was quite impressive.

Comment by jasoñ voorhees 2011-04-30 22:33:26

The sad fact is that imp is a homer who's merely poo-pooing the Salt Lickers as a means to shine a light on his darling DC United winning the 1998 Copa Interamericana over Vasco De Gama. What did Bruce Arena call that match ? The "most important clubmatch in American history."

-Disgruntled Former Cosmos Fan

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