The Pioneers: Reliving Real Salt Lake's historic CONCACAF Champions League run ahead of four MLS-Liga MX showdowns

Kyle Beckerman has played more MLS games than any other field player. He’s traveled the world as a member of the US men's national team for nearly a decade. But of all the road trips on which the Real Salt Lake veteran has ever been, one stands well above the rest in terms of sheer craziness.

Five years ago, Beckerman and his RSL teammates got dressed for a game in a locker room with the roof threatening to cave in above their heads. Fans standing just yards away then yelled and cursed at them as they played. And that was after they were advised to hide from riled-up Costa Rican fans prone to throwing projectiles at the visiting team bus.

“That was the first time I remember the bus driver telling us to close the curtain,” Beckerman told MLSsoccer.com with a laugh. “And it hasn’t happened since.”

If that game vs. Costa Rican club Saprissa in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League semifinals seemed like a whole new world for Beckerman and his teammates, that’s because it was. Before then, no other MLS team had reached that stage of the annual tournament that pits top clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean against each other.

Their eyes may have been opened at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, but that didn’t stop RSL from making history by knocking off the Purple Monster to advance to the finals, before coming within an inch of winning the championship. That's all while they brought increased American exposure to a tournament long dominated by Mexican clubs.

Last year, the Montreal Impact followed suit with their own trip to the CCL finals. And this year may represent the league’s best shot at yet at finally winning the title. Four MLS teams–the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, D.C. United and, yes, Real Salt Lake–are still alive heading into four quarterfinals beginning Tuesday, pitting MLS and Liga MX sides.

“We were kind of the pioneers of the CCL, I think,” says Nat Borchers, now a Portland Timbers defender, but then a key member of that RSL squad from five years ago. “It was a really special run for us. I just remember we were such a tight-knit unit and everybody was just on the same page. We just had such a great kind of feeling that we were going to do something special.”

Talent and experience, of course, had a lot to do with Real Salt Lake’s “special run.” That squad featured many of RSL’s franchise stalwarts–including Beckerman, goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defenders Chris Wingert, Jamison Olave and Tony Beltran, and midfielder Javier Morales. They all helped the club navigate the tricky terrain of group-stage games at the end of one MLS season, and the two-leg knockout showdowns at the beginning of the next. And certainly some luck played into it, too, as RSL avoided a Liga MX club until the finals, when they lost to C.F. Monterrey (who won their first of three straight CCL titles that year).

But, perhaps more than anything else, the team’s CCL success owed to what then-RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey called “a long-term organizational commitment” to a tournament that demands a deep roster both young enough to handle the grueling extra games, and seasoned enough not to crumble in hostile foreign stadiums. Lagerwey, now the Seattle Sounders’ general manager and president of soccer, recalls how the RSL brass and then-head coach Jason Kreis decided to focus on the tournament early on.

They agreed the international tournament would be a great opportunity for a club that wasn’t “going to spend big dollars like the Galaxy,” and comes from a “very patriotic state” where an “us-against-the-world mentality” fits perfectly with the ethos of the team's fan base. “Back then, we thought that by stressing the Champions League and playing our best players in those games that we could put RSL on the map," Lagerwey says. "And, sure enough, it worked."

There have, of course, been other MLS teams that have made the CCL a priority since the tournament began under its current format in 2008. D.C. United and the LA Galaxy did the same when they won the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, the CCL’s smaller and less-taxing precursor, in 1998 and 2000, respectively. 

But it was Real Salt Lake that, as Lagerwey put it, “really captured everyone’s imagination” for the first time. The club felt that in a big way when the league put together a video and rallied around the #MLS4RSL hashtag to urge them on as they came closer than any other MLS team to securing an automatic berth in the FIFA Club World Cup, which comes with a CCL championship.

“We didn’t realize how much support there was going to be behind us,” Beckerman says. “When we did see and hear that, it really made us feel like we were fighting for the whole league.”

“It was awesome,” Borchers added. “Once you step back, you realize that MLS is just one big soccer family. And when we’re trying to build this league and compete against other leagues, we’ve gotta support each other.”

That ferocious support was never more magnified than in the second leg of the CCL finals, when a sell-out crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium stood on their feet for 90 minutes to watch Real Salt Lake take on Liga MX power Monterrey. Fans were confident, bubbling with excitement as history neared. So, too, were the players after they fought the Mexican powerhouse to an inspired 2-2 draw in the first leg, and returned to a place where they held a 37-match home unbeaten streak.

In the end, that all made it even more painful as RSL missed chance after chance in a 1-0 home loss that ended their championship dreams. But the legacy of being the first MLS club just to get that point is something they didn’t lose that night. And it’s a legacy that will continue to endure, especially now that MLS fans can point to RSL’s–and later Montreal’s–trip to the finals as reason to believe that a berth in the Club World Cup, where world-renowned teams like FC Barcelona await, hovers within sight.

“I just think the whole idea of having important games, playoff games, from the start really excited fans and players,” says Beckerman, who had to sit out the final 2011 CCL game because of yellow-card accumulation, a feeling he labels “the worst” possible. “Part of it was our run. Part of it was Montreal. And also the coverage of the tournament and coverage of the Club World Cup has grown.

“Now that everyone knows about it, now we want to win it. That’s become a little bit more of a focus for every team in MLS.”

After winning their CCL group last October, RSL will have another opportunity at a deep run this year. And their upcoming quarterfinal match-up with Liga MX’s Tigres UANL (Wednesday, 8 pm ET on FS2) has certainly added some intensity to the preseason. To help prepare for those games, Beckerman says that he and some of his teammates have even watched clips from five years ago just to “relive the run” a little bit and build excitement toward a what they hope will be a new one.

Meanwhile, Borchers, whose Timbers have been in Tucson for the preseason along with RSL, has been busy reminiscing with his remaining “buddies” at RSL about the “special bond” they created during the 2010-11 tournament. And even though he’d naturally love to be a part of the first-ever MLS team to win the CCL–Portland will play in the 2016-17 tourney thanks to their 2015 MLS Cup win–he’ll still be rooting for RSL as they try to finish what they started five years ago.

He’ll be pulling for the other three MLS teams going against their Mexican opposition, too.

“We’ve got tons of talent in MLS,” Borchers says. “We’ve got some very, very good teams. I think the first team to win it is going to make history and give the league a lot of credibility.”

Both Beckerman and Lagerwey agree that it’s only a matter of time until an MLS team wins the CCL and puts the league on the Club World Cup map. In fact, their aspirations are even bigger than that. Beckerman says there’s “no reason” why all four MLS teams can’t advance to this year’s semifinals, and Lagerwey points out that “two American teams in the finals at some point is the progress we want.”

Once upon a time, that might have seemed impossible. But five years ago, Real Salt Lake changed the narrative–and built a lifetime of memories along the way.

“It was as cool of a soccer experience and a culture experience that certainly I’ve had since I entered the league,” Lagerwey says. “And I think if any MLS team wins it, whoever wins it first, that’s going to be an awfully special accomplishment. And to be able to go to the Club World Cup and put MLS on a global stage will be transcendent for our league.

“I think it’s something worth dreaming about,” he continues, “because you have to dream about big things to make them come true.”