By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 24, 2012) US Soccer Players – Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis can choose to play up the moral victory aspect of his club’s 1-1 draw with Herediano on Tuesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League, but in all other respects it was a loss. As everyone knew going in, RSL needed three points to win Group 2 in the ‘only the winner advances’ reality of group stage play. Instead, Herediano played for anything but a loss on the road and got the result. Still, there’s that moral victory to consider.
“I am really, really proud of our guys tonight,” Kreis said while addressing the media post-game.
At halftime, I told them that the performance they had put out was spectacular in my eyes. We were doing all the things that you need to do to win big games like this except that final touch. It just came down to one player making one play; I really felt like it would come tonight and I’m shocked that we didn’t get it. But we need to move forward and forget this quickly because we have a little tournament of our own coming up.”
Ah, the old comparison between the Champions League and MLS Cup now made by the one team that’s supposed to have its priorities in order. Real Salt Lake is a Champions League team after all, stressing the importance of the tournament for both itself and the League it represents. They’re one of the few, perhaps the only, MLS team to truly prioritize one over the other no matter how briefly.
With no chance of finishing any lower than their current third in the Western Conference and avoiding the Play-In Round and no chance of finishing first, we already have RSL’s playoff opponent. Though they can swap places with 2nd-place Seattle in the standings, it doesn’t make enough difference to push a final regular season game against Vancouver to the top of the to-do list. They didn’t, because for Real Salt Lake this is a tournament that matters.
Coming off a bye week in MLS and playing at home in the Champions League, RSL failed to advance, but there’s a good argument that they didn’t fail to meet expectations. Instead, it’s another example of how it goes wrong for MLS in this tournament, but it’s not an indictment against RSL’s strategy.
It doesn’t help that we’re talking about Real Salt Lake. This is a team that plays its regulars, plays to win, and says all the right things leading into these games. This isn’t Houston, where wasted opportunity after wasted opportunity in MLS play means that even a slight chance at finishing high enough to avoid that MLS Play-In Round is enough to send out a makeshift lineup in a decisive Champions League game. Of course, Houston managed to get the point they needed to advance. That’s how it works for MLS in the bizarro world of this tournament.
Kreis isn’t wrong here. Real Salt Lake played the better soccer over 90 minutes but couldn’t score. That’s not a unique situation, and everyone involved knows it’s not enough. Still, there’s that nagging idea that MLS Cups and Champions League titles are directly comparable.
Unless the local population buys in at an unlikely level, MLS Cup takes precedence. I remember years ago seeing what I’ll politely call a ‘local entrepreneur’ selling bootleg t-shirts near an MLS Cup venue that referred to the game as the “world championship.” That’s the North American pro sports mindset looming large. We’ve seen what can happen when the locals embrace the Champions League and what it’s supposed to represent. The minor league version of Montreal selling out games against unfamiliar teams in a large stadium and MLS representatives like Real Salt Lake playing up the importance of the CCL.
Yet the tournament itself continues to let the region down. This season’s shift to a gauntlet version of a group stage where only the winner plays on puts more pressure on the officiating. That’s not the region’s strong suit, and it shows early and often. The officiating became the story in both of the games involving MLS clubs on Tuesday. Houston’s valuable draw included their manager shown the exit by the referee. RSL had their complaints against an opponent that seemed to get away with too much on the negative end of the soccer spectrum.
The result is what too often is the story of this tournament for Major League Soccer. The better teams make their exit, and not enough remains late in the knockout stage to really compete. That was supposed to be RSL’s reality check at this level when they played for the title in 2010-11. Two tournaments later, it’s still about finding a way to beat a Mexican club for a championship in the biggest picture, but it’s also about navigating the obstacles this tournament creates to get to that game over many months of tricky games home and away. RSL knew that going in, responded accordingly, and still ended up exiting at the group stage. That should be the story for the other teams in MLS, not Houston somehow managing to find a way through.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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