One of the biggest playoff series this country has ever seen begins on Wednesday night, and very few people are talking about it, or even know what it is. While it features some of the world's greatest athletes, and will be more exciting than a first round NBA playoff game, the majority of sports fans don't even care that it is going on.
I am not talking about anything to do with the Heat or the Lakers, the NFL has not started and Major League Baseball did not shorten its season.
The event that I am talking about comes from the relatively unpopular (only in the United States) sport of soccer.
Major League Soccer club Real Salt Lake begins a two-game playoff with Mexican club team Monterrey to determine the winner of the CONCACAF Champions League for this year.
CONCACAF is the governing body for soccer that spans North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Teams contending for this title are taken from the winners of various club leagues across 20 nations.
The prize for the winner is to move to the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup that will be held in Japan later this year. The Club World Cup is a tournament that matches the six winners of continental confederations, and a team from the host nation together to determine the World Club champion.
Real Salt Lake has already made history by becoming the first Major League soccer team to reach the finals. They originally qualified by virtue of their MLS championship in 2009. They now sit as one of the two teams from the 205 possible in this region that can still represent the region in Japan.
To put that into perspective, the Super Bowl champion is one of only 32 teams, the NBA champs and World Series winners are only one of 30 teams each. The 205 teams that Real Salt Lake could represent come from only one of the world's six regions.
The first leg of this historic match will be held on Wednesday night in Monterrey Mexico. The second part of the playoff will be held one week later at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The winner will be determined by the total number of goals scored in the two matches, with goals scored on the road being the first tiebreaker.
Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts described the match as "an opportunity to stamp Real Salt Lake’s presence on the entire world of soccer.” Head coach Jason Kreis added that if the team were to advance to the Club World Cup it would “easily be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The team from Monterrey, known as the "Rayados," is a club that enjoys a long history of success. Since their beginnings in 1945, they have consistently been one of the top teams in the Mexican first division and have won multiple titles.
Led by 29-year-old Chilean striker Humberto Suazo, this is an aggressive team that brings a relentless attack. They are very proficient in creating scoring chances and putting the ball in the back of the net. In his 45 international appearances, Suazo has scored 18 goals.
Many soccer experts see a lot of similarities between the two teams. Both like to attack the goal, keep possession in the midfield, and have a stifling defense.
Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers noticed, “Their style of play is similar to ours...They’re going to match up with our diamond midfield and they’re going to match up with us on top as well. It’s going to be difficult. They’re a very athletic and technically gifted team, so we’re going to have to very aware of the counterattack, of their buildup.”
Judging from the style of play that both of these now elite teams play, these matches have the potential to be high scoring. Real Salt Lake features a strong scoring presence of their own in Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio and although he may not play due to injury, Brazilian newcomer Paulo Jr. They have a strong midfield, and last season's defensive player of the year in Jamison Olave.
Real Salt Lake would like nothing more than a victory or a high scoring draw in Mexico. They would even settle for a one goal loss if they could score at least one on the road. That would set them up well for the second leg at home in Utah where it seems they can not lose.
Real Salt Lake already has gained the support of soccer fans and players on other Major League Soccer teams. It is rare in sports that fans band together to cheer on a division or conference rival for any event. Just ask how many Red Sox fans are ever happy when the Yankees make it to the World Series.
Nonetheless, support is pouring in from all over the soccer community. The Philadelphia Union was willing to reschedule a match originally set for April 23 to allow more time for Real Salt Lake to focus on the finals, and the league has started an #MLS4RSL campaign on twitter. Over the last few weeks, many current and former MLS players have added support to the cause.
It seems that anyone who knows soccer, knows that this is the biggest series in the history of Major League Soccer. A Real Salt Lake victory would help them and the United States to gain respect and notoriety among the soccer elite.
Let's just hope that Real Salt Lake can come out victorious and represent the United States and Major League Soccer on club soccer's biggest stage.
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