When Javier Morales struck the late equalizer in the 89th minute at Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Final, I literally jumped off the couch. It was such a moment of relief and celebration, one of those times where the pure emotion of the game grabs you and refuses to let go. That's what happened to me in those dying moments of the 2-2 draw at Estadio Tecnologico.
But you might wonder why Real Salt Lake’s success means so much to me - after all, I played for Dallas for 10 years and am now an analyst for the team. Why should I care about a rival club's success?
The answer isn't necessarily a simple one, and it's not just about my experience as a former player, as one might guess. It's also about my experience as a fan of the game.
As soccer fans we know that we have to pick and choose our battles in protecting soccer legitimacy amongst the crowded American sports landscape. There is a title given to us by those that do not invest in the game so heavily. Mine is “Soccer Guy."
It’s a point of reference and quick judgment made by friendly neighbors, dinner guests and in coffee shop encounters. The conversations are usually very similar -- how do MLS teams compare to other teams around the world? The measuring stick is out there, and they want to know how we measure up. It always leads to an explanation of how much the league is growing and how sure our future is. In those conversations I always feel like I’m building a house, but only prepping to have the foundation poured.
That, of course, makes RSL the cement, the foundation on which our league will build for the future.
The CONCACAF Champions League offers a battleground for Major League Soccer players to become seasoned professionals. From hostile environments, long travel logistics and a suddenly crowded game schedule of critical importance, their experience is what takes them from one level to another. It is what could take a fringe US national team player and make him into a regular contributor. The entire status of the league is respectfully lifted.
The best example of this is following RSL's defeat of Saprissa in the two leg semifinal series. The notoriously hostile crowd of the famed Estadio Ricardo Saprissa -- or “Purple Monster” as it is referred to by the home fans, who have made it a virtual fortress for visiting teams -- applauded the RSL players as they left the field. It was a tribute to the level of class and style with which they played the game, and not one easily given to an American side from an international audience.
MLS is hitting new heights of respectability outside of the United States. The league I once played in is becoming a viable option for not only world class players returning from European careers abroad, but also a stepping stone for footballing hopefuls. FC Dallas’ own Fabian Castillo is the perfect example.
As an 18-year-old member of Deportivo Cali in the Colombian First Division, Castillo had potential transfer interest from European clubs such as Benfica, Brescia and other ambitious suitors.
Instead he chose to come to MLS and FC Dallas.
Freddy Montero of the Seattle Sounders and Diego Chara of the Portland Timbers are other examples of young players with not only options, but also POTENTIAL. The tide is turning.
The quality of play has never been better in year 16 of Major League Soccer. There are many teams that play attractive, attacking soccer while at the same time winning. It is the most difficult task in all of world soccer. Real Salt Lake has balanced this task masterfully, even as they carry an expectation from American soccer hopefuls that are always in search of our next “IT” moment.
That moment will be decided tomorrow night in Leg 2 of the CONCACAF Champions League at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, as RSL not only looks to secure the $5 million prize, but also to become the first MLS representative in the FIFA World Club Championships in December.
RSL’s success means much more than that of any one player or any specific team -- it has meaning for an entire soccer nation. For a team whose credo is “the team is the star,” the potential accomplishment could not shine any brighter.
Bobby Rhine will travel to Sandy, Utah on Wednesday to witness Leg 2 of the CONCACAF Champions League final. Follow him on Twitter @bobbyrhine for an insider's view of how the drama unfolds at Rio Tinto Stadium, and make sure to watch the TV broadcast at 9 p.m. CT on FOX Soccer.