Borrowed from

- Robert Jonas Center Line Soccer

The enemy of my enemy is my friend — more than a tongue-twister, this proverb spells out clearly why I’m suddenly a big fan of Real Salt Lake. Don’t worry my friends and family in the Bay Area, I haven’t suddenly packed the U-haul and moved to the Beehive state. The reason, quite obviously, comes as a result of RSL’s sometimes dominating destruction of fellow Major League Soccer cohort Columbus Crew in the quarterfinals of the 2010/2011 CONCACAF Champions League, and from my pledge to support any and all MLS teams for as long as they survive in the tournament.

After being disappointed by the lack of quality in the first leg of the all-MLS quarterfinal the previous Tuesday, a game played on more of an ice rink than a soccer pitch, the return leg in fortress Rio Tinto Stadium was a great advertisement for what our domestic league can provide. The opening minutes saw both teams covering the field at a breakneck pace, with RSL eventually coming up spades on a brilliantly executed drive to goal. Javier Morales' assist on Alvaro Saborio’s goal was a thing of beauty more associated with the tenants of the Camp Nou than MLS, and received an endless amount of television replay time. However, the pass from Andy Williams to Morales that allowed the Argentine to enter the attacking third with pace was what got me jumping out of my chair, believing that something special was going to happen.

I nearly spilled my beer on my RSL jersey during that sequence — indeed, I was wearing the claret-and-cobalt that evening — thanks to the offensive prowess promised by so many observers and pundits for months leading up to the CCL quarterfinals finally making an appearance. Real Salt Lake was anointed “The Great MLS Hope” in this year’s tournament, and a was majority's favorite to make it to the semifinal round. Even the official website got into the act, running a well-produced four-part (now five-part after the victory) all-access documentary video that followed RSL from training to game day. Poor Columbus had been written off since the end of their playoff run in November, when a roster of veteran playmakers was subsequently dismantled in the offseason. Beating a team from Mexico for the championship — heck, even standing a chance against possible opponents Saprissa or Olimpia — was never more than a fantasy for the Crew. They comported themselves well to force a scoreless draw with RSL in the first leg of the quarterfinals, but securing a win at Rio Tinto Stadium was just not possible.

Up 1-0, and with the goal monkey off their back — they almost took the lead on a Will Johnson rocket off the post earlier in the match — RSL settled into their possession strategy and took control of the remainder of the opening stanza. Adding a second goal in the 36th minute seemed to be all the insurance they would need in front a raucous home crowd of over 15,000. And even though the Crew would halve the lead early in the second half, the sheer talent RSL had on the field ensured the hosts would go home winners. When the fourth Salt Lake goal bulged the back of the net in stoppage time, I felt satisfied that RSL was a worthy representative of MLS in our region’s most prestigious tournament.

Being a fan of sports inherently brings out the territorialism in most of us. I graduated from a Pac-10 school, which I hope takes every conference championship year over year. However, when another Pac-10 team faces an opponent outside our conference, I back them to carry the torch for all of us. Wins outside of league play only serve to enhance the reputation of the conference and its standing relative to others across the country. For a great representation of this, you need only look specifically at college basketball and the annual March Madness tournament, the closest thing have in the U.S. to a UEFA Champions League format competition. Conference power rankings, much like UEFA winning coefficients for their member countries, dictate the number of representatives that get an invitation to the NCAA tournament. The key to those power rankings is the member teams’ out-of-conference records, and the rewards for success are identifiable every year on Selection Sunday.

For many fans, the UEFA Champions League spurs on the same loyalty to country when it comes to favoring teams in the competition. Even the most diehard Chelsea fan is hoping Manchester United continues to advance this season, so that they can meet them, and then beat them in the Final. Go back a few years ago when three teams from the EPL made the Champions League semifinal round, and I dare say that every fan in England was pleased regardless of club preference. Don’t you think Serie A fans across Italy wish their clubs could have done more in this current campaign to save their precious bids to future tournaments*?

And so I willfully raise the flag of Real Salt Lake for the remainder of their run in the 2010/2011 CCL. I’ll have my RSL jersey washed and ready to don on March 15th for their semifinal first leg match against Saprissa of Costa Rica. I want to see coach Jason Kreis send out his best starting XI for that battle against the three-time region champions. At this point, for the Rio Tinto faithful and fans of all teams in our league, RSL is our horse to back in this four caballo race. What’s good for the claret-and-cobalt in the CCL is good for Major League Soccer — I have no doubt of this. The path through the semifinal will be daunting — ironically, only the Columbus Crew have even won a game at Saprissa’s home ground — but the reward in prestige for the team and the league require RSL to put out a maximum effort against the Costa Rican champions.

Besides, an all-out effort from Real Salt Lake on March 15th helps out my hometown team as well, for you see, they must visit the San Jose Earthquakes four nights later to open the 2011 MLS regular season. It is safe to say, the Quakes will be more than happy to take on a distracted and tired opponent that Saturday evening.

*Italy has been reduced three places in the 2012-2013 Champions League tournament to the benefit of Germany, which will receive four for the first time. 

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.

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