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By Brian Dunseth
Hostile environment : Check.
Rabid fans: Check.
Artificial surface: Check.
And then we have the 2-0 aggregate lead that Jason Kreis and Co. held in their back pocket heading into Tuesday night's second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals against Saprissa at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa.
Real Salt Lake adjusted its approach and mentality from the quarterfinals (where it started on the road at Crew Stadium against the Columbus Crew) to the semifinals (where it opened at home in Rio Tinto Stadium against Saprissa).
Additionally, it was able to harness the experience gained from matches in countries like Panama and Mexico, but also other Major League Soccer teams that have waved the MLS flag for the past couple of years in this tournament.
From dissecting the performances of teams like DC United, Houston and Columbus in the Champions League over the past couple of years, Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerway and Kreis were able to plant the seeds of a long-term plan is starting to fully bloom.
As I sat in the broadcast booth above Estadio Saprissa before kickoff, I found myself wondering out loud if this was the biggest game in Real Salt Lake's history -- and most around me said "yes". Everything it had gained and lost over the past three years would be scrutinized -- Kreis included.
From matching the intensity of the home side in the first 15 minutes, and taking some of the steam out of the notorious Monster's Cave crowd, to being prepared for a surge by a team desperate to get the aggregate result on home turf, Real Salt Lake was tested.
And what a defensive performance it was. Saprissa threw absolutely everything it could at RSL's back line from the opening kickoff.
While the individual accolades were sure to come, I can tell you from my perspective (which was in person), this was a team defensive performance - a side that played like a unit rarely seen before.
Nothing went unchallenged.
With the game goalless (and Real Salt Lake holding the 2-0 aggregate lead), the MLS side's confidence and composure was tested just seconds into the second half as the Estadio Saprissa crowd sprang back to life with an incredible goal.
You could feel the tide turn very quickly in that stadium, and it was RSL's response that was most impressive.
After RSL repelled wave after wave of attacks, Saprissa coach Juan Manuel Alvarez made the first offensive tactical adjustment, sending more players forward that ultimately gave Real Salt Lake the space and possession it so desperately needed.
It was hulking Colombian centerback Jamison Olave who would ultimately give Real Salt Lake the road goal iot so desperately wanted (and needed). Even with the insertions of forward Allan Aleman and Alejandro Sequira, Saprissa now was forced with scoring four goals on the night to overcome RSL's away tally and win outright.
While a dubious penalty would fall in favor of the home side in the dying moments, (and give Saprissa a 2-1 win that evening), it didn't matter. Major League Soccer saw its first team advance to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League 3-2 on aggregate.
And following Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez's final whistle, the team was on the receiving end on one of the classiest displays I've seen in person.
As Real Salt Lake left the field in one of the most difficult, harassing and notorious venues in our region, the players were given a standing ovation from the 20,000-plus supporters of Saprissa.