RSL entered the second leg with dreams of continental glory, but it failed to build on a promising start and suffered a rare home defeat to a composed Monterrey side.
Every RSL player shared Alvarez's visibly apparent disappointment and showed it in a variety of ways in the aftermath of last night's 1-0 second leg defeat, but Alvarez's forlorn figure neatly summed up the feelings inspired by an ending no one in Utah expected.
This night should have belonged to RSL. It should have ended with a 35-match unbeaten streak in MLS and CCL play at Rio Tinto Stadium and a rapturous crowd shouting its lungs out as the suspended Kyle Beckerman hoisted the trophy into the air.
Instead, it concluded with Alvarez and his teammates staring off into space and RSL coach Jason Kreis trying to process this crushing blow.
“It’s a quite foreign feeling to us to lose a match at our place, it hasn’t happened to us in a long time,” Kreis said. “You have to continue to be proud of what we put into this tournament and the fact that we made it to this final, I think we need to take some pride in that. Ultimately though, I’m very disappointed we couldn’t take that final step.”
Sorting through the rubble of this jarring defeat may only increase RSL's disappointment. This second leg always presented a much more difficult task than the circumstances – a home match with two away goals captured in Mexico last week – indicated at first glance. In this rigorous final assessment of its Champions League credentials, RSL crumbled under the pressure of an experienced opponent and the weight of the occasion.
If RSL had displayed a touch of ruthlessness in the opening stages, it may have avoided such a damning final verdict. The home side started brightly and carved out several decent chances as Monterrey struggled to come to terms with the challenge in the early stages. Those opportunities – including a turnover procured with high pressure inside the Monterrey penalty area and then agonizingly squandered by Fabian Espindola after ten minutes – all went begging as RSL missed a promising opening to consolidate its position in the tie.
Instead of punishing Monterrey for its uncertain start in a hostile road environment, RSL permitted the visitors enough time to sort out their early issues and settle into the match. This unfortunate dose of leniency ultimately resulted in RSL's undoing.
By the time the half-hour mark hit, Monterrey staggered out of its early doldrums and started to exert control over the proceedings. The visitors finally managed to stretch RSL's shape horizontally through increased service to the flanks and used extra numbers in the wide areas in an attempt to isolate RSL's fullbacks.
RSL can cope with such measures if it retains a decent amount of the ball, but the Claret-and-Cobalt's inability to press the initiative during this spell undermined those efforts and underscored the importance of Beckerman's absence.
Kreis admitted after the match that a bit of cautiousness was natural given the circumstances, but noted that the dearth of aggressiveness in this portion of the match carried significant consequences because it further weakened the work in possession and stretched the field vertically.
“The movement in our midfield wasn't good enough during that period and when our outside backs and our center backs got the ball, they didn't have any options to play in midfield,” Kreis explained. “Then they're playing direct and that stretches us out and gives them the ball back. Now they're coming at us again and again and again.”
The Claret-and-Cobalt finally broke on the stroke of halftime as Monterrey made its only shot on goal count. Sergio Santana wriggled free from his marker and played a quick one-two with Humberto Suazo to exploit the space between Jamison Olave and Robbie Russell. The two RSL defenders adjusted slowly to the developing situation and permitted Santana to slide in behind. Santana then sliced a deft little feed back for Suazo to coolly poke home.
“If we look back at it, it's probably the exact thing that we told the guys we didn't want to allow,” Kreis said. “They passed between us in midfield and then they passed between our right back and our center back and there you go. I tried to remind the guys multiple times that when you play a team as talented as Monterrey that if you take one play off, you get punished for it.”
The consequences proved far more severe than desired during a frustrating second half. Monterrey organized itself well defensively and RSL lacked the inventiveness and the precision to create opportunities. Frustration seeped in as the Claret-and-Cobalt reverted to a steady and easily digestible diet of diagonal balls toward the penalty area to provide the service missing all too often from the wide areas.
RSL pushed in fits and spurts, but it never really looked like slicing open a professional Monterrey outfit with Alvaro Saborio out of sorts and his teammates out of ideas. A couple of potential miracles nearly occurred in stoppage time – Javier Morales poked wide with Jonathan Orozco adrift from his goal line, while Orozco somehow managed to fumble and then push away an Olave header – to salvage a famous draw, but the necessary breakthrough never arrived.
“One goal was the difference,” RSL defender Chris Wingert said. “It was too much. We needed to be a little sharper to get into the half (at nil-nil). Maybe we were a little unlucky not to get one, but it wasn't good enough today.”
For a RSL side that so often proved its quality during this tournament, the inability to conjure up the necessary performance at the most critical juncture provided a cruel and unanticipated ending to a night where so much more was expected.
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.