When Real Salt Lake fell agonizingly short in the CCL, but still pushed MLS forward

Over the years the Concacaf Champions League trophy has become MLS’s white whale, an elusive object of great desire that’s always remained tantalizingly, agonizingly just out of reach, despite an array of concerted efforts and near-misses.

That should heighten appreciation of the first team to get close, the one that traveled the longest road — and the one that did it with a truly groundbreaking identity: The Real Salt Lake side of 2010-11.

Adopting a motto of “The Team is the Star,” Jason Kreis’ side played some of the prettiest, most proactive soccer MLS has ever seen, with no headline Designated Players and a reliance on domestic talent coupled with some shrewd Latin American imports. And unlike many of their peers, they took Champions League very seriously.

“We had established, I think, a very clear identity and a clear way of playing and all of our players really understood,” Kreis recalled in a recent interview with MLSsoccer.com. “That year, that team was probably the best team I've ever coached.

“Here was a small-market team that won the league against the likes of Landon Donovan and David Beckham. And so now I think we wanted to take the next step and make a global name for ourselves.”

Qualifying for CCL via their upstart 2009 MLS Cup triumph over the LA Galaxy, they marched through what was back then a marathon tournament, winning a four-team Group A that also featured Cruz Azul, Toronto FC and Arabe Unido in the late summer and fall of 2010 – with a home-and-home schedule requiring long journeys to Mexico, Canada and Panama during the stretch run of the league slate.

Typically arrayed in a diamond 4-4-2 formation featuring a fearsome spine of Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, Kyle Beckerman and Javi Morales – “our biggest leaders and probably our biggest personalities,” said Kreis – Salt Lake were unusually well-suited to the varied challenges of Concacaf play, with reserves who could hold their own better than most in the league at the time.

“We had so much experience on that team,” said Borchers, today a member of the Portland Timbers’ broadcast team. “You threw anything at us, any tactical adjustment, any opponent, we were able to figure it out on the field … we were just so difficult to play against. We had figured out defensively how our structure was going to be, we figured things out on the attacking end how we wanted to play. We’d won a Cup, so we already had the credibility that comes from being a good team, and so we had a lot of confidence.

“It was always fun to play games with that group because it was just like, man, we know where we're gonna get you, and it was rare that we ever encountered an opponent that had the kind of quality that we had as well.”

Pictured here partnered again in a later stint at D.C. United, Alvaro Saborio (left) and Fabian Espindola had a fruitful striking partnership at RSL | USA Today Sports Images

Up top, the Utahns featured one of MLS’s most talented — and combustible — strike duos: Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola. A devastating combination when clicking, they were also hotheads who, for better and for worse, kept everyone on their toes: "two of the more difficult players to manage in my career,” according to Kreis.

“They could be like oil and water with the rest of the team at times. They were cantankerous, they were always playing with an edge, always fighting,” said Borchers. “There were training sessions where you could see the train coming in. It started with a little bit of grumpiness in the locker room, and then it would get out to the field, there'd be like a missed pass and then like an ‘F you,’ and then a challenge comes in and then either Fabi or Sabo would just lose it. You had to be careful, especially as a defender — I matched up against both those guys all the time, and Fabi, we had so many of those. There were times when he just wanted to kill me. And I loved it. You want players to be alive on the pitch, you want them to be fighting for their lives and up for the challenge.”

After a narrow playoff loss to FC Dallas, RSL gathered early for preseason that winter to prepare for a CCL quarterfinal matchup with the Columbus Crew, who they took down 4-1 on aggregate. They then survived a harrowing semifinal series vs. Costa Rican powers Deportivo Saprissa, winning 3-2 on aggregate despite a 2-1 second-leg loss at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, the famed “Monster’s Cave.”

Their reward for becoming the first MLS team to reach that far? A clash with Liga MX titans CF Monterrey, who had yet to taste defeat in the tournament, led by elite talents like Jonathan Orozco, Aldo de Nigris and deadly Chilean striker Humberto “Chupete” Suazo.

“From an individual perspective, there's certainly no doubt that they had much better players than we did,” Kreis admitted.

Salt Lake got to host the decisive second leg. But first, they had to weather a daunting trip to Estadio Tecnologico.

“I remember walking on the pitch and just sweltering. It was just so humid,” said Borchers, recalling that the playing surface was left dry and “sticky,” so that long balls into space tended to slow up instead of rolling into touch, leaving RSL’s defense scrambling again and again.

The MLSers appeared to be in for a long night when de Nigris slammed home an early opener as Los Rayados locked them into their own end for long stretches. But then Borchers nodded a header past Orozco just before halftime for a vital away goal. A Suazo penalty kick pushed Monterrey back in front shortly after the hour mark, and minutes later a yellow card for Beckerman rendered the dreadlocked talisman suspended for leg 2.

Then, Morales conjured up a stunning moment of individual magic at the death to snatch a 2-2 draw.

“The crowd after that was just dead silent,” said Borchers. “When we walked off the field I don't think I've ever been more tired as a professional than that game, because of all the conditions and it was back and forth and just so stretched. But we knew that we had the upper hand going home; all we had to do was a 0-0 or a 1-1 tie.”

A capacity crowd packed into Rio Tinto Stadium for the second leg, and many across MLS expressed their support in what became known as “MLS4RSL” after the campaign’s hashtag. Finally, it seemed, the league might be about to break its CCL hoodoo.

Then, Chupete happened. Again.

“We had one one defensive lapse, at the end of that first half, and they punished us,” said Borchers. “And it was done so well, just the way they got into our box and how we didn't track, and then Suazo was just sitting on our doorstep. He could have taken it first time, the ball he gets, but he's just such a good finisher that he takes a touch, just waits and then he takes his finish. Just a difference in quality of a striker like him vs. the strikers we would play against in MLS – just another level.”

Said Kreis of Suazo: “He was the difference-maker. He was the one that we just didn’t have an answer for.”

RSL pushed and probed, uncorking 20 shots and giving Orozco a workout. But the equalizer they needed to hoist the trophy would not come. And when the final whistle blew, it was Rayados’ night.

“The fans there, they'd all been standing on their feet for the whole 90 minutes. They were expecting something and we couldn't give it to them,” said Borchers.

“If you look back on it, it was probably the biggest game in American soccer history up to that point in time, in terms of club level. MLS vs. Liga MX. The fact that we couldn’t get it done was tough – I remember through the game just thinking, wow, that's it – all that hard work, we couldn't get it done.”

And the hangover was fierce — not only that spring, but as a shadow across what could’ve, perhaps should’ve, been an MLS dynasty.

RSL would reach the Western Conference final that fall, but lost to the eventual champions, the Galaxy. In 2013 they hosted the U.S. Open Cup final, and suffered a stunning upset loss to last-place D.C. United. Later that year they advanced to MLS Cup again, only to fall to Sporting Kansas City via an epic penalty-kick shootout on a bone-chilling winter day at CM Park.

“We should have won [CCL]. It was bitterly disappointing in the end,” said Kreis. “Certainly I thought that we did have a little bit of a problem taking that very last step, as a club … But you look at the other side, quite frankly, I'm not so sure we should have even been in those positions.”

In the midst of the Beckham era, Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey had built a pass-and-move juggernaut on a budget, one that changed perceptions of what was possible in MLS – a legacy that echoes to this day.

“Collectively, we were much, much better than the sum of our parts. So we were doing something special,” said Kreis. “The last couple of years, I've heard from many people that what we did there did change the league. What we did there did change people's view tactically, coaches’ views tactically about how to play. I didn't really know we were doing that at the time. But I do think it's a tremendous source of pride.”

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