Real Salt Lake squeaked out a crucial draw last night on a Monterrey pitch lined with football hash marks. (Don't forget that the Borregos Salvages or "Wild Rams" play here, too.) Argentine Javier Morales evened the score at 2-2 for the American side with an 89th-minute goal, giving RSL a fair chance in Utah next Wednesday of becoming just the third MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League and the first to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup.
Now before you go getting too excited — like certain American sportswriters — remember that the FIFA Club World Cup is more of a marketing invention than a tournament with real fangs. In 2010, the quarterfinals featured Al-Wahda S.C.C. of the United Arab Emirates versus Seongnam Ilhwa of South Korea. That same year, TP Mazembe out of Lumbumbashi (Congo) went on an unforgettable run and won two games to reach the final, where Inter awaited with a bucket of cold water the size of San Siro. The Champions League this is not. The tournament is, however, an opportunity for a guppy like RSL to test itself in real competition against a soccer powerhouse, provided it can get past teams like the dreaded Al Sadd of Qatar.
I say this not to take anything away from what RSL has accomplished under coach Jason Kreis. The same excitable American sportswriter linked above also happens to be one of the better American soccer writers. And his more reflective piece about RSL yesterday is fascinating, even if you're not a soccer fan. The way RSL's management has built the team — by embracing difference rather than fearing it — is a lesson for any franchise owner. Of note:
By keeping its players together, Salt Lake has been able to fine-tune a style that combines Latino, North American and (thanks to Jamaican Andy Williams) Caribbean influences. The result is entertaining soccer that wins games.
"We have a style that I would call mixed between American and Latin, a new style," says Morales. "We work very hard in the American way, and we have a Latin game where we try to take care of the ball. It's not just the Latinos, either. This team has an idea of playing that's perhaps different from other [MLS] teams and more entertaining."
Nor is it a coincidence that Salt Lake's Spanish-speaking players have mixed with their English-speaking teammates far more than is usually common on soccer teams. Kreis says that when he played in Dallas there was a distinct divide between the Spanish and English speakers, but that's not the case with RSL, which asks its players to learn English to help foster a long-term commitment.
The effort matters. Morales and Olave, among others, have learned English from scratch. Players from nine different countries have connected. "I've been over for empanadas at Fabián Espíndola's house," says [Will] Johnson, a Canadian.
The empanadas are cute. The meshing of soccer cultures is critical, and not just on a club level. As La Reconquista of the United States by Latino immigrants continues, you can find harbingers of a hybrid style of play emerging — one that combines a classic, if stereotypical, American athleticism with the refined flair that thrives south of our border. Look at Clint Dempsey for a good example. One can only hope that whatever magic RSL has bottled over the last few seasons will soon be slathered on the U.S. national team (perhaps once players like Alejandro Bedoya and Juan Agudelo are a little more seasoned).
The story of RSL: A once-wretched MLS club is making history [Sports Illustrated]