SALT LAKE CITY — Pardon my juvenile crassness, but there aren’t many other ways to put it: That sucked.
Real Salt Lake’s 1-0 loss to Monterrey on Wednesday night was a cocktail of masochistic punishment: two parts punch-to-the-stomach, one part slap-in-the-face, a dash of kick-in-the-jewels.
And now, like a lot of soccer fans across the USA and Canada, I’m beat.
The worst part is, it’s all so familiar: USA-Germany at the 2002 World Cup. LA-Pachuca in the 2007 SuperLiga. USA-Brazil in the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup. USA-Ghana last summer. All of the buildup, the expectation, the optimism and, in the end, a soul-crushing defeat.
After the game, I spent some time reading through fans’ comments, on Twitter, on the live chat on MLSsoccer.com, on other message boards. Many people said they felt "let down." They looked for someone to blame. RSL coach Jason Kreis took a lot of flak. The referee in the first leg who showed Kyle Beckerman that innocuous yellow card came under attack.
MLSsoccer.com’s very own Simon Borg was cursed for saying the title was “in the bag” for RSL. Even “American soccer” suffered a few blows, as if every player, coach, administrator, journalist and fan in the country had somehow conspired to break everyone’s heart.
Here’s the truth, though: No one is to blame. Losses happen. Even ones that seemingly shouldn’t.
Now let’s deal with it. That’s what a real soccer nation does. It doesn’t question everything based on one setback. So RSL didn’t have their “Lake Placid moment.” That doesn’t mean this is a go-back-to-square-one moment.
Saying that, this is no moral victory, either. I’m sick of moral victories. Reaching the finals of the CCL is good, but it’s not as good as winning the trophy and getting into the Club World Cup.
No one would agree with me more than the RSL guys themselves.
Throughout RSL’s CONCACAF run, I’ve wondered about the club’s insistence that winning the CCL and getting into the Club World Cup is the most important thing an MLS team can do to lift the international reputation of the league and, consequently, the reputation of American and Canadian soccer. At times, RSL’s proselytizing seemed too earnest to be real.
Then, as I left Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday night, I ran into RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. I’ve known him since we were both 15-year-old kids competing against each other in Olympic Development Program tournaments.
One thing I’ve always admired about Garth is his ability to keep things in perspective. Sure, he celebrates victories and laments defeats, but he never seems to believe that a result is the end of something. It’s just the beginning of the next step.
In the lobby of Rio Tinto, I expressed my condolences to my old friend. He nodded, uttered something about how he was disappointed, then said something I was not expecting.
“We’ve got four chances at it again in the fall,” he said.
It took me a second to know what he was getting at. Then it dawned on me: Another four MLS teams (most likely five, when the Canadian champion is included) will begin CCL action.
Here he was, a scant two hours from a loss that seemed to undo 15 months of amazing work from RSL, and Lagerwey was unwavering. It didn’t matter to him that his team wasn’t going to be in the next Champions League. His use of "we" referred to all of MLS. All that mattered was that the next wave of MLS teams was going to get their shot at the trophy.
And all he wanted to know was: Will they take it?