The editorial staff at MLSsoccer.com is looking back over the year with our Best of 2011 awards, running Dec. 19 through Jan. 2. Each day we'll hand out an award in a variety of categories culled from the storylines of MLS and US international players, including Biggest Controversy, Breakout MLS Star of the Year and, via fan vote, the Moment of the Year.
Senior content producer Simon Borg starts off the series with a look at the Game of the Year. We chose among all MLS regular-season and postseason games, as well as all CONCACAF Champions League, US Open Cup and international games involving MLS clubs. No international games for the US, Canada or other national teams were included in the voting.
Our winner this year is the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League finals between Monterrey and Real Salt Lake, which ended in a dramatic 2-2 draw.
“Welcome to your grave.”
Those were the supposedly intimidating words of an English-speaking Monterrey fan hovering outside the parking lot gate where the Real Salt Lake team bus and the media caravan – a few taxis behind the police escort – entered the Estadio Tecnológico.
But despite those menacing words, this did not feel like the hostile road environment you’d expect at the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League finals in Mexico.
There was almost a family atmosphere at the outdated university facility belonging to one of the best teams Mexican soccer had ever seen. The wide gap between the stands and field minimized the hostility from the sold-out crowd. The scenic mountainous backdrop felt like home for the visitors from Salt Lake. And the faded football lines for the university’s gridiron team were a nostalgic touch of soccer americana.
Even the temperature, which had reached 110 degrees in the lead-up and was expected to be oppressing and suffocating, was instead comfortably warm and breezy.
The environment was not going to weigh on RSL on this night. But what did was the 24-match winless streak of MLS teams in competitive matches south of the border. At least as far as the observers were concerned.
Real Salt Lake may have won the backing of an entire soccer nation, but RSL were all alone on April 20, facing arguably the most talented roster in Mexican soccer.
The Monterrey attacking machine had barely revved up when the Rayados scored an early goal, with forward Aldo de Nigris thumping home a loose ball in the box. Only 17 minutes had expired.
This was surely set to turn into the nightmare script MLS fans had seen play out countless times before on Mexican soil: a first crack in the dam that inevitably leads to an embarrassing and helpless collapse by the MLS side.
But Monterrey plugged that leak themselves with a stunning double substitution just minutes after the opening goal. The goalscorer came off along with captain Luis Ernesto Pérez, almost as if Monterrey had been waiting for the opening goal to take the duo off.
Check out MLSsoccer.com videographer Scott Riddell's memories of the Game of the Year. He tracked RSL throughout the knockout stages of the tournament, and got an inside glimpse of the team.
The momentary impression, including among Monterrey beat reporters, was that perhaps manager Víctor Manuel Vucetich wanted to save his best players for league play in an act of bravado.
Even though it turned out both players were hampered by injuries, those 20th-minute subs halted any momentum Monterrey could have hoped to build upon after going up 1-0.
The response was reminiscent of an RSL team that had also starred in the 2010 MLSsoccer.com Game of the Year, a topsy-turvy 5-4 loss at Cruz Azul. Defender Nat Borchers thudded home header in the 35th minute, and it was game on.
But there was still more adversity to come for RSL in that second half. A questionable yellow card to Kyle Beckerman on 64 minutes meant the RSL captain would miss the final. Then an awkward Jámison Olave hand ball on a cross led to penalty kick conversion by the always dangerous Humberto “El Chupete” Suazo, who was buzzing for the entire match. It was 2-1 with roughly 30 minutes remaining.
RSL endured and absorbed whatever Monterrey threw at them, until they were finally able to counterpunch. Late sub Arturo Alvarez made his way toward the right corner of the field in the dying minutes of the match, a move that would at least eat some minutes off the clock, but it turned into much, much more.
The ball made it from Alvarez to Javier Morales, who had not threatened all match until that moment in the 89th minute. He turned Monterrey defender José María Basanta inside out and, surrounded by three Monterrey players, he found the only trajectory to the net, tucking the ball inside the far right post.
The stunned hush of the crowd was memorable. The locals couldn’t even bring themselves to berate the ineffective defending from their own players. It was a respectful silence for a golazo, an utter moment of wizardry that had to carry over into the second leg.
No, RSL didn’t win the series. They lost 1-0 in a stunning finale at Rio Tinto a week later, ending their dream of reaching the FIFA Club World Cup.
But the opening game in Monterrey was one to remember. It was not only a wonderful clash of the best MLS and Mexico had to offer, but also a stark wakeup call that the Club World Cup is no longer a pipe dream for MLS teams, and Mexico doesn’t have to be the place those dreams go to die.
2. Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders, July 10 – It was the second-ever MLS clash between the Timbers and Sounders, the first at JELD-WEN Field, and it didn’t disappoint. A packed house, a passionate rivalry and plenty of goals. The Sounders rallied from a goal down twice, then dropped the hammer on their Cascadia rivals with a penalty kick in the 83rd minute by Seattle midfielder Osvaldo Alonso.
3. D.C. United vs. Portland Timbers, Oct. 19 – With playoff hopes for each hanging in the balance, DC and the Timbers went end-to-end in one of the most frenetic and frantic games of the year. Kenny Cooper and Dwayne De Rosario traded goals on each side of the break of the 1-1 draw, and the last 15 minutes played out exactly like it should have: two teams with nothing to lose.
WATCH: Reviewing the Game of the Year