By Neil W. Blackmon
Nearly one year after a British announcer’s call on a Californian’s defining moment in a game played on a far away continent catapulted American soccer into coffee break and living room fodder and inspired a country, fate intervened. Fate intervened in the 89th minute and delivered the American soccer diehards, the bluebloods who loved that moment in Pretoria but yearned for validation of a more lofty variety, a chance to suggest that they can, and will, be part of coffee breaks and living room chatter more than once every four years. Fate is a fickle mistress with a divine sense of humor, and so you might suggest it is more than irony that fate’s gift was delivered on the right foot of an Argentine midfielder who fired home to the delight of American announcers after a Salvadoran substitute managed to turn a longtime Mexican international defender and deliver a cheeky ball to the late-running goal scorer. That this all happened in Mexico, the country playing the role of wicked stepbrother to American soccer for two decades, was simply fate leaving the room laughing before the ball found the back of the net. Of course it bears repeating that there are still ninety minutes remaining in this melodrama, and while there is every reason to be confident, it may be best to avoid hubris in the week to come. Fate is anything but fair and there is no tragedy without confidence’s arrogant pal hubris. But make no mistake: fate intervened last night. It did so for every American soccer fan, even the ones in Colorado struggling to make sense of this sequence of events. To those fans, a simple reminder should suffice: fate has no favorites. For all the American soccer fans that defended their young league loudly over the last ten years as it grew slow as a southern oak, fate intervened. For every argument where the fans of Major League Soccer calmly responded to criticisms of the league schedule, of its hard salary cap, of its developmental academies and programs, of its (perceived, falsely) reliance on aging designated players to stimulate attendance growth and television ratings, fate came through last night. It delivered and for at least one week, the arguments may not stop but the impassioned defenses presented by the American soccer fans so loyal and so longing for a concrete moment of validation not found in a well-produced YouTube video but rather located in a result, can brush aside those haymakers and simply say “That’s all well and good, but remember that Javier Morales scored in the 89th minute and sent Real Salt Lake home to its impregnable fortress, the Rio Tinto, with two away goals tied on aggregate.” That’s the “Your move, unbeliever,” moment not even Pretoria, historically accompanied by a defensive lapse four days later, could deliver, and in so many ways, it seems one that only fate could dream up.
After all, fate has a wonderful sense about what constitutes a great story. Real Salt Lake, franchise belittled for its name (which doesn’t make any sense, outside of the fact that the Great Salt Lake in Utah is a very real body of water) and long laughed at for poor results, was a perfect mark. Fate doesn’t miss a chance to intervene when the story is that good, and with Real- it is a dandy. Less than four years ago, the Royals, as they are called by their long-suffering fans, were a franchise in disarray, in last place in MLS’ Western Conference and seemingly lacking answers. Enter Jason Kreis and last night’s hero, Javier Morales. Grant Wahl wrote a wonderful story for Sports Illustrated that explains what happened next, and you should read it—but the abridged version is that Kreis, a 34 year old first-year head coach straight off the playing field met personally with Morales, who was looking to leave Spain, and sold him on playing soccer in Utah of all places and more importantly in the same meeting sold him on his vision for the future. The road back would be long, Kreis told him, but he, general manager Garth Lagerway and RSL Owner Dave Checketts had a plan, and if Morales signed on, he would be at the center of it. To the shock of most the American soccer-following universe, the road back wasn’t long at all. Just two years and a couple months after that meeting, Real Salt Lake were champions of the league, defeating LA Galaxy in penalties in the MLS Cup Final when the Californian who fate decided was to be the hero of Pretoria fired over the bar on the decisive spot kick. If that isn’t fate coming full circle in this wonderful story, then certainly Javier Morales’ stunning goal last night that has RSL ninety minutes from immortality surely was.
The game leading up to Morales’ moment of magic was a testament to Kreis and Checketts plan, a microcosm of the whole story. In the four years leading up to last night, Kreis built a deep unit that defies stereotypical MLS soccer teams, and the result has been a side that is an advertisement for MLS. Most lack depth—Real Salt Lake have it in bunches. Arturo Alvarez’s ability to impact the game so profoundly as a substitute last night stands as a classic example. Most MLS sides threaten on set pieces due to size and physicality that are characteristic to the league, but are often one or at best two-dimensional in their method of attack—a problematic that makes them predictable and easy to defend, particularly in international competitions. Kreis built a side with a great number of ways to break teams down defensively. RSL can hurt you from width thanks to the marvelous Fabian Espindola; they can come via the center through captain Kyle Beckerman after building possession from the back thanks to steady ball-movers at center defense in Olave and Nat Borchers; they can counterattack quickly with steady fullbacks like Robbie Russell, who don’t strike you as marauding, attacking fullbacks until they’re terrorizing your flank. This versatility in attack made Real particularly difficult to defend in all stages of the Concacaf Champions League competition, and is a large reason they were the first MLS side to win a group in the tournament and the first to reach its final in this particular tournament format. The depth helped too, both last night and in garnering rest to emphasize results in this competition, which was new to MLS for the most part too, as sides often cited too many matches and demands on players in answering queries about CCL failure. The LA Galaxy, for example, one of the best sides in MLS, couldn’t dispatch the Puerto Rico Islanders in this year’s CCL competition mainly because they simply didn’t have enough quality depth to weather the road leg coupled with the league schedule. To be sure, it helped late in the competition that MLS accommodated Real’s title push by moving its schedule around—but anyone who saw a RSL band of mostly reserves dominate New England a fortnight ago understand how valuable the rest was for the starters and how rare that was in an MLS side.
Last night, however, was more about versatility and Real’s other defining trait: a sense of belief. The first half was, with a few blemishes, classic Real Salt Lake. They took the initiative in the match and attacked—from width, through the center, on set pieces. Fabian Espindola was extremely active and made threatening runs from all manner of angles, lacking only a final ball in the first fifteen minutes that would have vaulted the Royals to the lead. When Real fell behind—a goal that was one-part odd defensive breakdown and less than assertive goalkeeping and one part bad bounce (a Beckerman clearance bounced fortuitously to Aldo de Nigris’, who finished clinically)—they responded by attacking aggressively. Eventually, an awful back pass by Monterrey set up a corner kick, and although Monterrey managed to clear that effort, the ball fell to Will Johnson (a classic Real Salt Lake “quietly tremendous” piece in his own right) who delivered a marvelous ball to the center of the area. Rather than give up after the set piece failed, Nat Borchers resolutely waited around to see if there would be another opportunity. When it came, he delivered a clinical header past Jonathan Orozco that sent Real deservedly into the interval 1-1. After four years of building a side with depth, grit and certainly capable of scoring goals in a variety of ways, the halftime score seemed more than appropriate.
Perhaps, then, last night’s result wasn’t fate at all. Perhaps folks are right who say fate and luck aren’t real things—they’re intangible entities folks afraid to get their knuckles dirty latch onto at desperate moments. Luck and fate are really just words for when hard work meets opportunity, the old saying goes. That seems a fair assessment of Real Salt Lake’s CCL run, too, if we’re being fair. Still, it is hard to ignore the workings of fate last night. The story is just too damn good, and we’ve already outlined how fate loves a good story. Fate also certainly loves gumption in the face of adversity. Real Salt Lake’s resolve and “don’t blink” attitude after falling behind certainly deserved a reward. But there’s more to the tale than that—more of a reason to believe fate was watching. There’s hubris- that old concrete foundation to tragedy—the one thing fate hates most. Maybe fate was simply hovering around northern Mexico last evening, waiting to see whether it should make an appearance. Hubris might have been the tiebreaker.
Much was made in the build-up to the match of the failure of MLS sides to win in Mexico. Indeed, even this same Real Salt Lake group had blown a golden opportunity a year earlier to find a victory, conceding late against Cruz Azul in the group stages after dominating for ninety minutes. Confidence of Mexican sides in these matches, then, should be high. But fate rightly makes distinctions between confidence and hubris—and when Monterrey manager Victor Manuel Vucetich removed both the goal scorer de Nigris and his captain, Luis Ernesto Perez, twenty five minutes into the match and just moments after Monterrey took the lead—one couldn’t help but think the line between confidence and hubris had been passed. By game’s end, MLS writer Simon Borg and others had confirmed the official reason for the substitutions—both players had apparently aggravated hamstring injuries. That may well be the case—but given the timing of the substitutions, one can’t help but think those injuries are the “official reasons” only. The incident had the scent of old, longstanding Mexican hubris towards American soccer, and it smelled bad. For several decades, the belief in Mexico has been that American soccer is inferior and it is insulting to suggest otherwise. Nearly a decade of mostly negative international results in the wake of Brian McBride’s goal in Korea haven’t significantly changed this belief, and while there were members of the Mexican press last night mystified by the substitutions, there were an equal number who assumed the same things Vucetich seems to have assumed. The game was in hand, and Real didn’t pose a genuine threat to Mexican superiority. While one can certainly make the argument that US Soccer is only a threat to Mexican regional primacy at the international level and not the club level and that as such this belief is warranted, the hubris involved in that argument ignores the closing of the gap at the club level. It reflects instead a belief of Mexican superiority that is cultural—and those types of vices become habits and are hard to break. Last night, they reared their ugly head as they have in so many international matches since that fateful day in Korea—and fate was watching.
As such, when Real Salt Lake fell behind again and played on its heels for most of the second half, fate was simply preparing the final twist in the tale. Around the seventy-fifth minute, RSL began to assert itself again, attacking from width and through the smooth distribution of their captain, Kyle Beckerman, who played an immense match. Monterrey were still dangerous on the counter, and when Chilean Humberto Suazo found himself breaking away in space in the 84th minute, it appeared the Mexican Champions would head to the Rio Tinto with a devastating 3-1 advantage. Rimando, so unassertive on set pieces and the goal in the first half, reacted superbly, charging and making his 5’10 frame appear 6’10 to the approaching Suazo, who, forced to try to chip, missed high. The tying sequence followed moments later, when Arturo Alvarez skinned longtime El Tri starter Ricardo Osorio on a late run along the right flank, slickly played to Morales, who did the rest with remarkable composure and stunning placement. It was the perfect ending to the perfect story that can only happen in soccer when depth and resolve meet up with class and a bit of opponent overconfidence. It was, most of all, the moment so many fans of Major League Soccer have waited for: a concrete result providing a firm reason to believe.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there are still ninety minutes to play. And if you believe fate is involved—remember she is a fickle mistress and she may have a turn in the tale yet. Things could certainly still go wrong, as Jeff Carlisle rightly pointed out in his column today. For one thing, Real Salt Lake must be tighter in the back. Monterrey had plenty of chances and even the steady Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave can’t be banked to perform that impeccably again. The Royals left flank was torched throughout, and although Osorio was bested in the sequence on the final goal, he and fellow sideback Sergio Perez made mince-meat of Chris Wingert most the evening. Wingert was among Real’s shakiest performers last night, and that’s a concern that coupled with the absence of Kyle Beckerman, who received a questionable yellow but is now suspended for the second leg, and the “He’s on the field but seems absent” performance of Alvaro Saborio makes a final result anything but guaranteed. Then again—one gets the sense that fate is watching, and next week, she’ll be watching from the Rio Tinto, where Real Salt Lake have the longest home unbeaten streak of any side in the world. And that is yet another reason to believe.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor In Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.