Major League Soccer outfit Real Salt Lake overcame Costa Rican giants Deportivo Saprissa to reach the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, where they will meet Mexican side Monterrey, who beat last year’s losing finalists Cruz Azul to book their place.
Real Salt Lake became the first side from the USA to reach the final of the CONCACAF Champions League (previously the CONCACAF Champions Cup) since LA Galaxy in 2000 by beating Deportivo Saprissa by a slim 3-2 margin over two legs. After winning 2-0 on home soil last month, their 2-1 defeat two nights ago at Saprissa’s hugely intimidating ‘Monster’s Cave’ was just enough to see the Utah-based MLS club through to the grand finale of the region’s top club competition. The surprise 2009 MLS Cup winners are now just one step away from becoming the first American side ever to reach the FIFA Club World Cup.
The men from Salt Lake are known for a lack of stars but a surplus of determination and grit. They failed to put in their best performance in the second leg, although did well enough to grind out a result which was enough to see them through. “We would have liked to advance to the final in a more impressive fashion," said coach Jason Kreis, a former striker at the club and one of MLS’s finest-ever goal poachers. "This was not our best game, but I don't want to take anything away from the accomplishment. The guys are pleased and we are happy to be moving on to the finals."
Saprissa were unable to get much going in the first half, but in the opening seconds of the second, Luis Diego Cordero slammed a fine shot over the head of veteran RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Jamison Olave drew the visitors’ level just 15 minutes later and the goal, important for obvious reasons, also dented the home crowd’s enthusiasm.
“It was critical for us to respond at that point in the game," Olave said. "We'd just fallen behind and their crowd was getting loud. When we tied the score, it completely changed the game. It gave us a cushion and let us relax again."
An Alonso Solis penalty three minutes from time set up a wild finish, with Costa Rican league leaders Saprissa pressing hard for the crucial goal. Javier Arrieta went closest, but he put his effort wide to a groan from the crowd. "When the final whistle blew, we were both relieved and happy with the result. The second half was tough and their pressure was relentless," Salt Lake’s Jamaican midfielder Andy Williams said. "But we were able to hold them off and accomplish what we set out to do. Now we'll start thinking about the final.”
Suazo paves the way for Monterrey
RSL’s opponent in the ultimate two-game series will be Monterrey, the seventh time in a row a Mexican team has reached the continental final. Los Rayados needed a penalty - finished with aplomb by Chilean talisman Humberto Suazo - nine minutes from time to seal the tense semi-final encounter with fellow Mexican outfit Cruz Azul.
The opening clash between the two sides finished 2-1 to Monterrey at home in mid-March, but Cruz Azul took the edge in the second leg on Wednesday night and looked well on their way to the final when Cesar Villaluz hit home in the 24th minute for the home side. They were just nine minutes from booking their place in their third consecutive final, but Waldo Ponce committed a second bookable offence and Monterrey were awarded a penalty. Jose De Jesus got his fingertips to the stocky Chilean’s spot-kick, but he couldn’t keep the firm strike out. A furious attack followed from the hosts, but they failed to find the goal they needed as Monterrey’s players celebrated wildly at the final whistle.
The first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final will take place on 19 April at Monterrey’s Estadio Tecnologico, with the second leg coming a week later at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium. Whichever team wins the final will do so for the first time in their history, also reaching their first-ever FIFA Club World Cup into the bargain.