Real Salt Lake: a right royal football team?

Most of the articles about the CONCACAF Champions League I have written include the phrase, “Mexican dominance”.  And not without good reason, there are Mexican teams at the top of each group currently and you have to go back to 2005 to find a winner not from Mexico.  In total Mexican teams have won the CCL, and its previous incarnation the CONCACAF Champions Cup, 27 times and been runners-up on 13 occasions, far more than any other nation.  Teams from Mexico have contested the last two finals, and such is the strength in depth in the Mexican league that Pachuca, the winners in 2007, 2008 and 2010 didn’t even qualify this time.  The four teams that did (Cruz Azul, Monterrey, Toluca and Santos Laguna) have a combined record of 9 wins, 2 draws and one defeat, scoring 32 and conceding 10.  The likelihood that a team from somewhere else in the CONCACAF region will win the CCL this year is pretty low.

With that said there are three teams that are in with a chance of doing just that.  The 2005 winners and 2008 runners-up, Saprissa of Costa Rica are one of those.  However this Saprissa team is a long way from being as good as the 2005 side.  They are struggling domestically as coach Roy Myers has been trying to overhaul his team and in the CCL they have started to pick themselves up after a poor start with two victories in their last two games.  They lost their first game 0-1 away to Monterrey but in truth the scoreline was flattering, Monterrey were by far the better team and should have won by a greater margin.  Their next two games have been played at home against inferior sides.  Saprissa were also a little fortunate to have had opposing players sent off in both of those games.  Each of the sendings off came at pivotal points in the game and definitely worked to Saprissa’s advantage.  They will probably qualify from their group but it is doubtful whether they have what it takes to seriously challenge the Mexicans.

The other two sides that look able to mount a significant challenge hail from the rapidly improving MLS, Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew.  Both have big games this week, Columbus play Santos in a top of the table clash that will go a long way to deciding the eventual winner of Group B.  Columbus will have revenge on their minds after losing in dubious circumstances to a goal in injury time of the away trip to Santos last month.  A win against Santos would see them take over the group leadership with two group games to go.  Even if they don’t win tonight, they will probably qualify from the group stage and are arguably better equipped than the Costa Ricans to make an impact this year.

For this week though I will have a look at the record-breaking Real Salt Lake, one of the most interesting sides in the MLS.  Like Columbus Crew they are in with a chance of domestic and international success.  RSL face a long trip to Panama to play Arabe Unido this week.  The Panamanian team were thoroughly outplayed by Cruz Azul in last week’s home game eventually losing 6-0.  The earlier game between RSL and Arabe Unido finished 2-1 to the US team, if they can repeat the feat away from home they will have 9 points from 4 games and be pretty confident of making the play-offs.

Real Salt Lake are having their first crack at the CCL and are acquitting themselves well.  After being founded in 2005 RSL became the best team in the MLS last season.  The MLS Cup winners are arguably performing better this season than they did in the last one.  They currently boast a stretch of 23 games unbeaten at home, an MLS record, and have not conceded a goal in the Major Leagues since a 1-1 draw away to Kansas on the 7th August.  They are second in the MLS rankings this year and have to be a good bet to repeat their victory again.  They also came the closest any US team has to getting a win in Mexico, leading Cruz Azul 1-3 with 15 minutes to go before finally losing 5-4.

All this from a team that have only been around 4 years and have had to silence their share of jokers, mostly regarding their choice of name.  When RSL were founded many thought their name should reflect some aspect of Utah life, like the rugged Rocky Mountains that surround the city.  The club instead decided to pay homage to the biggest name in world football, Real Madrid.  The Spanish team take the “Real” from their connections to the Spanish royal family so a royal reference in the US, a country that fought a war against a king and his army is a little strange.  The choice of Real Salt Lake was intended to inspire thoughts of quality, tradition and style, characteristics that are associated with Real Madrid but were very far from a brand new team in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery however, and Real Madrid like to be flattered as much as your average European aristocrat.  This new admirer from the New World got the attention of the Spanish giants.  The two teams signed a partnership agreement in 2006 that promised a lot but has yet to deliver very much.  The main points of the partnership were that Madrid and Salt Lake would regularly play friendly games in the US and Spain and RSL would train annually with Madrid, both of which haven’t happened as often as first hoped.  Most important though were the plans for youth academy in Salt Lake City which was to be part-funded by Madrid.  For a league constrained by the salary cap youth development is vital and as such this academy would have been very useful for RSL.  Unfortunately little has yet happened with Madrid citing the change of management and the weak global economy for their inaction.

In the meantime RSL have managed pretty well on their own by sticking to what they know.  After a rough start to life in the MLS, they fired their coach and installed former player Jason Kreis in the manager’s role.  Kreis is also known for making history, he was the first player drafted by RSL and the first to score for them, he later became the first MLS player to reach 100 goals.  When he took over the managerial reigns he became the youngest coach in MLS history and after their victory last year became the youngest coach to win the MLS Cup.  Things didn’t go so well at first but in his second season his philosophy of “the team is the star” instilled enough belief in the squad to get them to the play-offs, before finally bowing out in the semi-finals.  They improved on that in 2009, after qualifying for the play-offs in last place they went on to lift the trophy by defeating LA Galaxy in the final.  This season their success has been built on quality all through the team.  They have a strong “spine“ from the goalkeeper Nick Rimando, through the centre-back partnership of 2009 defender of the year Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, onto the midfield pairing of gritty captain Kyle Beckerman and the creativity of Javier Morales, to Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio.  RSL have thus far refused to go down the Designated Player route taken most notably by LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls, this week Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey raised doubts about the whole idea of designated players.  He believes that they dangerously unbalance a squad with a huge amount being spent on one or two players, leaving very little left with which to fill out the squad.  Interestingly he also questions the commitment of super wealthy stars coming over from European teams to play in the MLS at the end of their careers, claiming that the extra travel required of MLS teams who also compete in the CCL is too draining for some of these older players.  He claims RSL’s high level of performance in the MLS and the CCL are down to the depth and quality they have in the squad.  Importantly for their CCL campaign the younger players are able to deal better with the rigours of travel.  Lagerwey has bought into Kreis’ maxim of “the team is the star” and it is certainly working for RSL so far.  Instead of expensive additions of waning stars, the RSL mixture of committed experienced players and young additions to the squad has worked well and they will need to keep that up for the team reach the later stages of the MLS and the CCL.  Players like Paulo Araujo Jr, Joey Beltran, Nelson Gonzalez, Jean Alexandre and Chris Schuler in particular give a glimpse of a bright future at RSL.  Indeed some of the first team regulars have been left behind for the the journey to Panama, so some of these young players will see action tomorrow.  A win in Panama would stand them in good stead to qualify from the group stage of the CCL and this team of record breakers can then set about loosening the grip the Mexicans have on that trophy.

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