Salt Lake’s Showtime Disappointment

Real Salt Lake While one Real contending for their regional Champions League suffered a major setback at home yesterday, the other saw their dream end completely. Real Salt Lake are not whining about their defeat in the same way as their Spanish inspiration from Madrid are busy doing, but they still have a bitter pill to swallow after a 1-0 defeat at home to Monterrey resulted in a 3-2 defeat on aggregate in the Concacaf Champions League final and an end to their 37 game unbeaten streak at home.

So #MLS4RSL ends in disappointment, a Mexican team once again putting American opposition in its place – or so the story goes. In truth, the tie was an even enough battle over the two legs, RSL securing a deserved tie in Mexico but failing to live up to their usual standard at home with Humberto Suazo (worth more than RSL’s entire team) proving the difference. A capacity crowd of 20,378 at Rio Tinto was clearly into the game, but obviously did not intimidate their experienced opposition.

At When Saturday Comes, Ian Plenderleith has the most telling analysis of the game I’ve seen:

Having done the hard part by managing what few US club sides ever do – avoiding defeat in Mexico – Salt Lake became the victims of too much hype, and too much dreamy talk about striding out on to the world stage. They forgot to play their normal passing game, and it didn’t help that their normally prolific strike partnership of Fabián Espíndola and former Bristol City loanee Álvaro Saborío both had absolute stinkers.

It wasn’t luck that told, but class. Just before half-time, Monterrey put together a three-man passing move within the tight confines of the Salt Lake penalty area and the game’s best player, Humberto Suazo, neatly finished the kind of move familiar to regulars at the Nou Camp. The home team’s second-half response was hurried and hectic and, untypically for this team, it was typically MLS. That is, the kind of first touch that makes you wince, with all promising moves breaking down in the final third. The closing minutes saw the familiar long ball banged high towards the Monterrey box, but a toe-poked effort that went just wide in the final minute of injury time was the closest Salt Lake came to grabbing the honours.

Intense Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis stood in his trenchcoat casting shifty glances up and down the touchline, like a deviant set on committing some unspeakable act, but all too aware that he was under surveillance from cameras and 20,000 people. After years of praise for turning a virgin team (Real Salt Lake were founded in 2005) from the league’s basket case into a solid, well-drilled unit, it was only right that Kreis suddenly looked like a hunted man. Against a team that’s extremely comfortable on the ball and swiftly confident on the counter-attack, MLS had again come up against its limits. There were no answers on the bench, or within the team’s tactical scope.

Fair enough. Real Salt Lake did not seem to have a plan B to gain control of the game. Plenderleith, though, does neglect to mention one key reason RSL did not have their usual control: after receiving a dubious yellow card in the first leg, they were missing their captain and fulcrum of the team, one of the best two-way players in the league, Kyle Beckerman. This clearly had an enormous impact on RSL’s play, and one even suspected the jig was up for RSL psychologically with Kreis’ reaction to the suspension following the first leg in Mexico:

“That for me was a fair tackle, it wasn’t even a foul. I believe the ball hit Kyle’s shin, and he was first to the ball. That is mind-boggling for me. I’m extremely disappointed in the referee’s decision, and now I’m extremely disappointed for Kyle and our team. It’s already had a huge effect on him, he’s extremely disappointed in the locker room. Of course, it will have a huge effect on us when we lose our captain.”

In terms of the match as an event: I for one was happy to see the game and the competition being the focus of the MLS hype: not Beckham-cam, not the atmosphere, not an all-star friendly, not some poor attempt at forcing rivalry, but Real Salt Lake’s 18-month journey to do something special. Sure, as I mentioned yesterday, the hype machine was in overdrive – the #MLS4RSL stuff did gloss over LA and DC’s previous Concacaf regional triumphs with some disdain – but the point remains that American soccer’s watercooler talk was about an international competition and the play on the field. RSL fell just short following a brave effort, helping raise the profile for the Concacaf Champions League, with a narrative that can now intensify in terms of MLS’ quest to dominate regional competition. Of course, the downside of focusing on the game is that the result might not go your way. It didn’t for MLS. But that shouldn’t deter the league from continuing to promote regional competition heavily. RSL embarrassed nobody.

One other down note, though: if MLS and its broadcasting partners want fans to feel the excitement of international competition, they need to do better than the insipid announcing that accompanied the game yesterday. Find someone who can convey the game’s importance and help the pulse quicken when something exciting happens, and find him a partner to work with who can provide some helpful analysis of the play. Having a slightly bored-sounding announcer did not make it feel like a great event, and nor did the lack of a pre-game show – or the Concacaf production values, for that matter. Hype needs showtime!

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