MONTERREY, Mexico – Twenty-four matches played in Mexico, and zero wins. Why can't MLS teams get a break when playing South of the Border?
“That’s the question,” said Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman. “We’re all looking for the answer.”
RSL will look to become the first on Wednesday when they open the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League finals against Monterrey (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer, TeleFutura).
Last fall it appeared that Salt Lake would end the streak themselves, as they took a 3-2 lead into the 87th minute of a CCL group-stage match at Estadio Azul in Mexico City. Then disaster struck and Cruz Azul scored three goals – RSL added another themselves – over the remaining three minutes of regulation and four minutes of stoppage time. The final was 5-4, and a spectacular loss for an RSL team that’s not used to being on the wrong end of a score line.
Beckerman pointed to that match and explained that some of Mexico's hex over MLS teams is just the mental aspect of the game.
“It’s just ingrained in them, that they don’t lose to American teams,” he explained. “It’s just a mentality thing, and we don’t have that yet down here. But somebody has got to break the spell, and once we do that then maybe we’ll start to get that winning mentality down here.”
RSL coach Jason Kreis chalked it up more to experience than mentality.
“I think it’s a multitude of reasons,” Kreis said. “I think that first and foremost in prior years we’ve lacked the requisite number of players with the requisite amount of experience to play in an atmosphere like Saprissa, and an atmosphere like any Mexican stadium that you go into.”
However, another important factor is that the heart of group play comes at a time when MLS teams are scrambling for position in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“Some of that comes down to when it gets late in the season and your team is on the cusp of not making the playoffs, as a coach and as a technical staff, you are probably faced with the decision of alright are we going to put our eggs in the MLS [Cup Playoffs] basket or are we going to put it in the CONCACAF basket,” Kreis said.
“Too often before, the choice has been the MLS playoff basket because frankly, that’s what coaches feel like they are hired and fired by."
What makes RSL a better candidate to end the spell in Mexico? Kreis says his team understood that once it qualified for the MLS Cup Playoffs, it had time to devote itself to succeeding in the Champions League – and it also has the mental makeup to seize the moment.
“I think this team in particular has the requisite amount of maturity, the requisite amount of time together and the requisite amount of depth to compete with Mexican teams,” he said.