The MLS's Real Salt Lake had a 2-2 tie-that-was-basically-a-win last week on Monterrey's home turf. Leo and his team seemingly had Los Rayados swaying back-and-forth unconciously. Perhaps the final blow would be landed by RLS or Monterrey would just fall over in another 0-0 or 1-1 draw. (Entering those Fatality moves can be a bit tricky.) But the tired Mortal Kombat metaphor fell apart before Monterrey did. Showing strength in challenged marking and persistant offense, Monterrey stunned Real Salt Lake 1:0 (3:2 Aggregate) to win the CONCACAF Champions League Final.
The most glaring difference between the teams tonight were the forwards. Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio never looked comfortable on the field, often having his first touch lacking the quality necessary to get though Monterrey's hounding defense. His partner Fabian Espindola often gave defenders fits with his speed and ability to find seams to collect through-passes yet could not take advantage. Monterrey gave Espindola three shots on goal in the first 10' but Espindola didn't finish with accuracy or authority. A few more gifts were wasted by Espindola in the second half before he was substituted for fresh legs.
At the other end of the field Monterrey forwards Sergio Santana and Humberto Suazo together terrorized Real Salt Lake's defense. The skill and experience shimmered when playing a more controlled game in the last 20' of the first half. Suazo's ability to collect long service balls and distribute towards Santana (or other teammates) combined with Santana's deft handling were like two edges of a sword. Within the first minute of stoppage time of the 1st Half -- ultimately the last possession of the half -- Suazo and Santana plunged in for the kill.
The Monterrey forwards helped build a relentless push against a clearly-exhausted Real Salt Lake team (who spent too much of the 1st half overhustling on defense to make up for sloppy offense). Santana broke through with a give-and-go run to the 6-yard box, drawing Real's goalkeeper Nick Rimando to dive. Santana alertly tapped the ball to a penetrating unmarked Suazo in the crease of RSL's armor, who found just enough space to finish among 3 RLS desperate defenders.
Santana left the second half early with an injury and Monterrey's offense was dulled: Suazo's threats without his partner were handled much better by Real's defense. Starting with 20' left in the 2nd half, Real's attacks were constant but the entire team lacked sharpness to truly threaten Los Rayados. Long shots, headers, long service ball were all parried successfully by Monterrey. In stoppage time Real finally was able to test Monterrey's keeper Jonathan Orozco but still lacked the ability to earn an equalizing-yet-winning goal.
RLS (and Major League Soccer fans) were left unfinished at the end.
After the game the MLSSoccer.com livechat was filled with loathing over the opportunity lost. (Apparently die-hard American Soccer fans' whining about how the Mexicans and other countries disrespect the MLS & American Soccer is a favorite activity; second only to acting like pompous jackwagons towards fans of other American sports.) Some complained that MLS Salaries are too low the acquire the kind of talent that can consistently beat Primera División talent. Monterrey's Suazo was bought for $5 million in 2007, which is more than the salaries for the entire Real Salt Lake squad.
As a soccer n00b I don't know if American soccer needs to start spending more money. I do know that Real Salt Lake wasn't exactly the scrappy David against the Mexican Goliath in this Championship series. A gutty win in Monterrey (with a fantastic finish by RSL's Javier Morales to secure a second away goal) proved that Real deserved to be at this level. Tonight, on their home field with nearly every advantage necessary to win, Real Salt Lake came up just short of being a CONCACAF Championship team.
The gap between finishing and not finishing is what kept Real and MLS out of the FIFA Club World Cup.