MONTERREY, Mexico – Real Salt Lake took a massive step toward winning the CONCACAF Champions League with a 2-2 tie against defending Mexican league champions Monterrey in the first leg of their final series on Wednesday night at the Estadio Tecnológico.
Mexican striker Aldo de Nigris put the home side ahead in the 18th minute, cleaning up a loose ball in the box. But after two controversial substitutions by Monterrey, RSL controlled the first-half proceedings before equalizing at 1-1 in the 35th minute on a Nat Borchers header.Borchers’ fellow defender Jamison Olave gave back the goal with a hand ball in the box in the 62nd minute, which led to a penalty kick converted by Monterrey star Humberto Suazo. But despite asphyxiating pressure, Monterrey could not score a third and Morales punished them by leveling the score with one minute remaining.
The second leg will be played on Wednesday, April 27, at Rio Tinto Stadium, where RSL have a 34-game unbeaten streak in official competitions since May 2009. A 0-0 or 1-1 tie would be enough to earn RSL the right to represent CONCACAF in the FIFA Club World Cup for the title of greatest club soccer team in the world.
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman will miss the second leg at Rio Tinto after picking up a caution, which triggered an automatic suspension due to yellow-card accumulation. Jesús Zavala and de Nigris will also miss out on the second leg for the same reason.
It was an entertaining start to the match as both teams exchanged early opportunities. But it was RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando who was forced into a sensational save in the ninth minute, tipping a quick-fire Suazo shot over the bar.
Aside from that scare, RSL enjoyed prolonged spells of possession in the first half, with Monterrey seeking to break in transition and spring their Chilean star up top.
Los Rayados took the lead against the run of play in the 18th minute as right back Sergio “Cherokee” Pérez made a marauding run to the end line. His cross took a few deflections in the middle of the box before falling perfectly for an unmarked de Nigris, who powered home a goal into the empty net.
After taking the lead, Monterrey manager Víctor Manuel Vucetich made the unconventional decision of subbing out his goal-scorer and his captain, seemingly looking to preserve his players or the result. Both de Nigris and Luis Ernesto Pérez later had ice packs applied to their left and right legs. respectively.
RSL’s Fabian Espindola, who proved a handful for the Monterrey back line in the first 45 minutes, turned provider in the 24th minute as he fed fellow striker Alvaro Saborio on a give-and-go. The Costa Rican should have done better on the play but shot right at goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco.
The breakthrough for RSL came 11 minutes later on a play again initiated by Espíndola, who pressured the goalkeeper on a back pass and forced a corner kick. The ensuing set piece fell to an unmarked Will Johnson on the right flank and he weighted a perfect cross into the middle of the box, where Borchers rose above a crowd of players to head home.
The second half started menacingly for RSL. Five minutes after the break, Monterrey had a goal called back after Osvaldo Martínez was whistled for offsides.
The visitors, sporting their “victory gold” kits, were orderly in defending the assaults by the Mexican champs until the 62nd minute when Olave's handball led to Suazo's PK.
Monterrey continued pressing, but the likes of Borchers and Olave continued to come through with timely defensive plays. On the other side of the field, Olave nearly netted a goal in consecutive Champions League matches as his 77th-minute header off a corner kick fell right to the ‘keeper’s feet.
It was second-half substitute Arturo Alvarez whose hustle play lead to Morales’ equalizer. The Salvadoran national-teamer dispossessed a Monterrey defender of the ball deep in the right corner and served Morales at the top of the box. The Argentine weaved his way into the right side of the area until he found the space to unleash a right-footed shot that found the low far corner for a dream 2-2 result.
MTY – De Nigris 18’
RSL – Borchers 35’
MTY – Suazo PK 63’
RSL – Morales 89’
REAL SALT LAKE: Nick Rimando – Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, Robbie Russell (82’ Tony Beltran) – Will Johnson, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy (61’ Andy Williams) – Alvaro Saborio (82’ Arturo Alvarez), Fabian Espindola
CAUTIONS: Beckerman 65’, Saborio 72’, Williams 74’
MONTERREY: Jonathan Orozco – Ricardo Osorio, Jose Maria Basanta, Hiram Mier, Sergio Perez – Neri Cardozo, Walter Ayovi, Luis Ernesto Perez (21’ Jesus Zavala), Sergio Santana (70’ Jesus Arellano) – Aldo De Nigris (22’ Osvaldo Martinez), Humberto Suazo
Subs Not Used: Severo Meza, Duilio Davino, William Paredes, Juan Ibarra
CAUTIONS: De Nigris 19’, Zavala 72’
REFEREE: Joel Aguilar (El Salvador)
ASSISTANT REFEREES: William Torres (El Salvador), Juan Francisco Zumba (El Salvador)