There’s a movement afoot around Major League Soccer – one of those rare moments where everyone puts aside their differences and starts cheering for the greater good.
Next week, Real Salt Lake will go to Mexico looking to go where no MLS team has gone before: become the first MLS team ever to win the CONCACAF Champions League. That would be a titanic accomplishment, a true mark of how far the league has come and an endorsement of how unique and special a team RSL are.
In the history of our league, there has been really no point in its 16 years where everyone who follows MLS understands what is at stake and exactly how much can be accomplished in arguably its most important moment yet on the international stage.
But is it as simple as that? Some of the support across MLS may surprise you – as will the reasoning behind it. Here are three rivals of RSL and their rationale for getting behind the Claret-and-Cobalt.
Vicariously: Kevin Hartman
The FC Dallas ‘keeper has a unique perspective on what RSL are accomplishing because he’s been there himself. Well, sort of. In 2000, as a member of the LA Galaxy, Hartman hoisted the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup – the CCL's less glamorous predecessor – marking the last time an MLS team won the regional title.
But he’ll be the first to admit the degree of difficulty wasn’t exactly the same. While RSL will have a dozen games under their belts in this year's quest, the Galaxy had to play a mere three games – all in the Los Angeles area – to win the title.
“We realized there were certainly some good teams involved,” Hartman recounted to MLSsoccer.com last week of that tournament. “But we also felt fortunate to be hosting it in LA; we definitely felt we had some advantages.”
The Galaxy’s kind draw also meant they didn’t have to go up against CONCACAF powers such as Pachuca, Toluca and Alajuelense. But their victories over D.C. United on PKs in the semis, then over Olimpia of Honduras in the final, meant LA qualified for the second-ever FIFA Club World Championship, to be held in Spain.
As far as international tournaments go, this one was no Mickey Mouse competition. FIFA had planned a 12-team extravaganza that starred a number of big-time teams, including Real Madrid, Boca Juniors, Palmeiras and Galatasaray. The Galaxy were to be paired in a four-team group that included a mega-granddaddy matchup: vs. Real Madrid at the Bernabéu.
Sadly, the event fell apart two months before it was to debut as FIFA’s outsourced promoters went bankrupt. That, says Hartman, was the biggest disappointment of all.
“It was a ticket to play against international clubs we never got the chance to play against,” he said. “Back then, you didn’t have those big teams touring the US like they do now. We were looking forward to getting to Spain. It didn’t work out that way.”
Should RSL conquer Monterrey, they’ll get a chance to do what the Galaxy never did – play in the Club World Cup in Japan this December. And besides representing the region, says Hartman, he’ll be proud to see Salt Lake get a shot to do what his team never could.
Enviously: Julian de Guzman
The Canadian international got a front-row seat as RSL finished atop Group A in CCL pool play last year – the first time an MLS team has done so. In that group stage, Salt Lake battered de Guzman’s Toronto FC 4-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium last September, then stole a point in the rematch at BMO Field two weeks later.
It was clear to de Guzman then, and still is now, that something special was going on in with Jason Kreis’ crew.
“For me, they play the best football in the league,” he told reporters last weekend. “Since I’ve been in MLS, it’s probably the best team I’ve played against in this league. The LAs and New Yorks have guys with great names and whatnot, but you can see Real Salt Lake is a complete team.”
De Guzman admits he’s wildly envious of RSL as they chase CONCACAF glory. The fact that they’ve kept their core together for nearly a half-decade is the kind of stability he craves at his own team, which is undergoing a third makeover in three seasons.
But under the new Champions League system, de Guzman & Co. get a direct crack at the tournament every year – the winner of Nutrilite Canadian Championship is granted Canada’s pass into CCL qualifying, which Toronto have wrested for the past two seasons. Starting on April 27, the Reds begin their journey back toward the CCL when they open Canadian play against NASL side FC Edmonton.
De Guzman wants that title back very badly, and he stresses that TFC’s American cousins are the model franchise.
“What Real Salt Lake has done has opened a lot of eyes,” he continued. “They’re a great example, not just for ourselves, but for the rest of league for what they’ve been doing in representing MLS and making it to the finals with the type of football they’ve been able to produce. Hopefully one day, we can reach that point.”
Begrudgingly: Drew Moor
You do not root for your biggest rivals. That’s the rule in pro sports. Jeff Larentowicz basically said as much when he told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week that he’s indifferent to RSL’s pursuit of CONCACAF history. Such is the nature of the Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry.
Teammate Moor feels similarly – to a point. He agrees that it’s tough to pull for Real Salt Lake, and he and his fellow MLS Cup champion Rapids have fed off the rivalry and want nothing more than to crush the team that continues to master them at almost every turn.
“RSL has had the [Rocky Mountain] Cup for last four years,” he told MLSsoccer.com shortly before Wednesday’s loss at Rio Tinto. “That stings in Denver – we don’t like that. Our [league] championship is nice, but we don’t want them to have that Cup.”
But Moor also understands that Salt Lake’s success in CONCACAF lifts everyone in MLS up, rivalries aside – that it’s for a greater good. As a fan of the league since its inception, Moor says, it’s important that an MLS team go out and win that championship to show how far the league has come in 16 short years.
There’s another part at play here, too – if RSL do hoist that trophy, it’ll be another iron in the fire for Colorado, who start down their own Champions League road this summer, when the 2011-12 group stage kicks off.
“If they win, good for them – and it’s good for the league,” he said. “I will be happy in that part. But as far as us going into that competition this year, we want that success. From a competitive side, you don’t want your greatest rivals to outdo you. That’ll be a new bar set for us. We’ll have to do them one better.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.