The reaction of Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis to his side's historic CONCACAF Champions League semifinal victory over Deportivo Saprissa speaks volumes about the standards he set forth for his team.
For a club harboring greater ambitions than a berth in the final, this second leg performance served merely as the means to an end.
“I think I’m going to take some time to digest it,” Kreis told reporters after the match. “I’m feeling a little bit bittersweet about it all at the moment. I’m really pleased obviously at this historical moment. I guess I would have liked to advance in a little more impressive fashion would be the right way to put it.”
Kreis is as right about this 2-1 second leg setback in Costa Rica as he has been about most things over the past 18 months.
This night may have deservedly sealed a first berth in the final for a MLS club during the Champions League era with RSL emerging with a 3-2 victory on aggregate, but it should not have ended in defeat.
It is, in fact, rather complicated to explain how it did.
Real Salt Lake probably enjoyed the better of the play in a ragged first half. Neither side enjoyed much in the way of rhythm in the opening 20 minutes with fouls interrupting any semblance of flow to the proceedings and passes running astray on the artificial surface. Matters improved a bit as the players settled into their tasks – RSL cobbled together one particularly impressive stretch of possession at one point – but the run of play offered little in the way of incisiveness or sharpness in the final third.
The back-and-forth probably should have seen RSL secure its cherished away goal. Andy Williams' clever little ball in the aftermath of a set piece allowed Kyle Beckerman to stay on the correct side of Saprissa's mad dash out of its own penalty area. Beckerman settled the feed well, but he opted for power instead of placement from his unmarked position near the penalty spot and watched as the impressive Victor Bolivar pushed his effort away.
Bolivar once again saved his side shortly before the halftime interval. Alvaro Saborio rose highest to meet Javier Morales' corner kick to once again exploit Saprissa's defensive weakness on set pieces, but Bolivar dove to his right to somehow push the effort aside.
Saprissa mustered just one decent chance in the opening half – Josue Martinez fired high from a knockdown six minutes before halftime – yet suddenly found itself within a goal on aggregate one minute after play resumed.
The home side offered precious little in the way of precision in the final third during this two-legged affair until Luis Cordero supplied a rare instance of predatory brilliance to grasp an unlikely lifeline. His looping strike from 25 yards arrived as a moment of ingenious inspiration rather than as a condemnation of any glaring defensive misgivings from the visitors, but its impact threatened to alter the course of the match all the same.
Saprissa scarcely deserved to place the tie in such doubt, but RSL's immediate response ensured such uncertainty would be short lived. It is a testament to the Claret-and-Cobalt's character and resolute defensive organization that the period after the goal did not yield any imminent threats upon Nick Rimando's goal. Saprissa may have wanted to find a second goal straight away, but RSL never looked liked yielding it.
Both of RSL's excellent center backs fittingly drew this fortitude-revealing spell to a close by featuring in the moment that just about sealed the Claret-and-Cobalt's place in the final. Morales swung yet another fine corner kick into the Saprissa penalty area on 61 minutes and RSL once again asserted its dominance in such situations. Nat Borchers won the initial header, but his effort popped up into the air off the back an unfortunate defender. Jamison Olave sliced his right leg into the tempting rebound to side-volley home the decisive away goal with a classy touch of technique most center forwards find elusive.
Olave's stunning strike sucked the air out of the Purple Monster, but it did not entirely conclude the night. Saprissa huffed and puffed without any real belief or conviction – Jairo Arrieta and substitute Allan Aleman posed the greatest threats in the wide areas with Beckerman restricting Walter Centeno's space through the middle, but their service often lacked menace and the RSL back four dealt well enough with the crosses that did find their mark – and struggled to revive hope as the time ticked away.
In perhaps the most worrisome sign ahead of the two-legged final later this month, RSL needlessly stuttered to close out the match in the final quarter of an hour. Poor decisions placed the Claret-and-Cobalt in difficult positions when more intelligent routes would have relieved pressure. One such misstep – substitute Ned Grabavoy's impetuous lunge on Aleman to give away a penalty subsequently converted by Alonso Solis with three minutes to play – permitted Saprissa to register a hollow victory on a night when the storied Costa Rican side expected so much more.
Similar thoughts will run through Kreis' mind as he reflects on this monumental achievement on his way to Boston for Saturday's domestic clash against New England. RSL procured its rewards in Costa Rica with a committed and determined performance in one of CONCACAF's most difficult away venues, but the Claret-and-Cobalt must improve its ruthlessness in front of goal and its sharpness in midfield to produce a similarly encouraging result in Mexico on April 20.
Those goals – plus the already present expectations – outline a brief well within RSL's capabilities. It is now left to two legs later this month to determine whether meeting Kreis' lofty standards will lead to continental glory.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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