2011 in Review: 10 Best CCL Games of the Year, Part I

Posted on December 20, 2011 4:08 pm

At the beginning of this year, after watching the ball drop in New York, I stayed up a bit and decided to write up some of my favorite memories from 2010. I published them to rave reviews…two, to be exact. But since a thumbs-up from Dan Loney is just one notch below receiving the blessings of a Tim Vickery or Jonathan Wilson, I decided to do it again while we put the last touches on 2011. As you can expect, these reviews will focus on the main tournaments covered here (World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League), but I will finish up next week with some more general comments about the year that was.

Before we begin, I should provide a definition of the subjective qualifier “best”, so that you know how the following games were selected. Instead of looking primarily at the quality of play, I decided to give emphasis on how captivating they were, taking into account the importance of the game and the stakes that each side faced. Also, with one exception, I only considered games that I actually watched, so unfortunately World Cup qualifying was largely out of the picture. I will talk about one of those matches in particular, at the end; for now, let’s start with five of the 10 best CCL games played in this calendar year, in chronological order.

Santos Laguna (MEX) 1-3 Cruz Azul (MEX) – 10-11 Quarterfinals, Second Leg

Cruz Azul’s 14-year trophy drought hardly needs introduction; but every once in a while, when the team is “on song”, they can overwhelm anyone in the region. So it occurred in Torreon, where Santos Laguna entered the game down 0-2 on aggregate. Pulling off the comeback was certainly within the realm of reason; Santos Laguna did finish as runners-up in the 2010 Mexican Apertura. But la máquina proceeded to run Santos over in their own house. Emanuel Villa’s future with the team is currently in doubt, but back in March he nailed down Santos’ coffin with a first-time volley and a diving header, either side of a neat breakaway goal set up by fellow Argentine Cristian “Chaco” Giménez. Once Cruz Azul went up 3-0 (5-0 on aggregate), the guerreros needed six goals to win the series, but could only produce one on the night. Unfortunately for the visitors, this CCL would end just like the previous two: with Cruz Azul eliminated by the eventual champion.

Real Salt Lake (USA) 4-1 Columbus Crew (USA) – 10-11 Quarterfinals, Second Leg

To be honest, the first leg of this quarterfinal was an eyesore. Up in Columbus, the two remaining US teams in that CCL had produced a disappointingly typical “MLS preseason” game, with both sides producing few scoring opportunities and only a trio of red cards generating interest for the 5,000 in attendance.

Once the series returned to the Rio Tinto Stadium, however, Real Salt Lake sprung back to life, displaying the drive and energy of a team in playoff form. With Javier Morales and Andy Williams conducting the orchestra, they overwhelmed Columbus with a combination of dominance and elegance not seen from an MLS side since the Bolivians Jamie Moreno and Marco Etcheverry helped build the DC United dynasty.

Mind you, this game was far from straightforward, and we have the away-goals rule to thank for that. Since the first leg ended 0-0, any goal in this game would set up a zero-sum situation, with a tie favoring the visiting Crew. So it was that after Alvaro Saborío and Morales put RSL up 2-0, and Will Johnson nearly scored the best goal of the tournament (his shot from outside the area hit the far post), Andrés Mendoza interrupted the crowd’s festive mood with an away goal just after the break. The hosts kept pushing forward, but for a good twenty minutes they could not put the series away, and one could sense the concern among players and fans alike that at some point, an unfortunate second goal would allow the Crew to steal the series.

At one point, the 15 thousand in attendance united in voice, chanting “Ole, Ole Ole Ole! Real Salt Lake!” They succeeded in lifting the spirits of the players, and Morales responded by scoring a controversial third goal (with an off-side Fabián Espíndola possibly blocking Ray Burse’s line of sight). A late Andy Williams free-kick sealed the game for RSL, who would later drop the same score on the LA Galaxy in regular-season play. At this point there was no question about which was the best club in Major League Soccer, but we still did not know how they would fare under more hostile circumstances.

Deportivo Saprissa (CRC) 2-1 Real Salt Lake (USA) – 10-11 Semifinals, Second Leg

When the stadium is packed and the fans are in full voice, the Estadio Saprissa is arguably the most hostile venue in CONCACAF, at club level. The American visitors had done reasonably well on the road in the CCL until then, with a 1-1-2 record marred only by Cruz Azul’s incredible 5-4 victory in the group stage; but frankly, Real Salt Lake had never before faced the kind of atmosphere that awaited them in Costa Rica. The morados, already hurt by Saprissa’s 0-2 loss in the first leg (in which ex-saprissista Saborío scored the game-winner), made the stadium vibrate with their chants, anticipating that their team would run over the demoralized rivals, as had happened three years ago when the Houston Dynamo wilted and received a 3-0 beating.

The hosts huffed and puffed in the first half, but only got a couple of good shots in on goal. On the other side, Kyle Beckerman found himself one-on-one with Victor Bolívar, but his rushed shot went straight at the keeper. But any worries on the home front dissipated right after half-time: Luis Diego Cordero found space in front of the penalty area, ripped a shot beyond the outstretched Nick Rimando and whipped the capacity crowd into a frenzy. At this point in the story, MLS teams tend to succumb to the circumstances, forgetting the basics of the game and hoofing the ball away as they pray for the final whistle. Not Real Salt Lake: they continued to play the same way as they had up to this point, and their discipline was rewarded when a corner kick fell the way of Jamison Olave. The central defender channeled his inner Chuck Norris, roundhouse-kicking the ball into the back of the net, and his celebration mocked the silence that had fallen upon the stadium. His strike gave the Americans the edge on away goals; and although Saprissa won and scored a penalty near the end of the game, they fell short of the 4-1 win that would have taken them back to the Champions League final.

CF Monterrey (MEX) 2-2 Real Salt Lake (USA), 10-11 Finals, First Leg

In the CCL era, we have seen a Canadian team make the quarterfinals (twice), a Puerto Rican team make the semifinals and a team from Trinidad and Tobago win in Mexico. But in spite of some surprising results over the last four years, one thing has remained constant: no Mexican team has been eliminated by a foreign opponent. If Real Salt Lake were to win this tournament, they would have to become the first; but given the offensive firepower at Monterrey’s disposal, I initially feared that it would be only a matter of time until the rayados’ superior talent would leave the Americans behind.

When a scramble in the box led to Aldo de Nigris’ opening goal, and Victor Manuel Vucetich made a double-substitution shortly afterwards, Real Salt Lake responded once again by maintaining their composure and playing the same aggressive style that got them here. Late in the first 45, they were rewarded with vital away goal by Nat Borchers. Olave was unlucky to give away a penalty in the second half, but Humberto Suazo offered no mercy, putting Monterrey 2-1 ahead. The hosts wasted a couple of opportunities to score, and RSL had a manageable task ahead of them in the second leg, but a sequence at the end of the game changed the face of the series: Arturo Alvarez chased down a ball near the corner at Monterrey’s end, won it and squared it back to Morales, who skipped by one defender and blasted the ball low into the corner. It was not a victory, but RSL had given themselves an enormous advantage: with a victory or a low-scoring tie back at home, they would become the first US club in over a decade to win the CCL, and the first one ever to attend a World Cup.

Real Salt Lake (USA) 0-1 CF Monterrey (MEX), 10-11 Finals, Second Leg

At the Rio Tinto Stadium, in front of a sold-out and passionate crowd, and with the aforementioned 2-2 “lead” in their favor, Real Salt Lake took to the field as hosts of the first CCL Final match to take place outside of Mexico. Given an undefeated streak at home that exceeded 30 games in all competitions (including a comprehensive 3-1 victory against Cruz Azul in the group stage), they had every reason to believe that a continental championship was within reach. They went after Monterrey in the first few minutes, but Espíndola wasted two good opportunities to put RSL ahead, while Saborío was marked out of the game. The Mexicans renewed their confidence, and after a couple of shots by Suazo barely missed the target, the Chilean pulled off a one-two with Sergio Santana, finding himself with just one RSL defender between him and the goal. He made no make, slipping the ball in and giving Monterrey a 3-2 lead on aggregate.

Jason Kreis’ team responded by throwing everything they had at Monterrey in the second half. One wonders why Alvarez was subbed into the game instead of Paulo Jr., but RSL successfully pinned Monterrey back in their half and peppered Jonathán Orozco with shots. Espíndola found himself free for a header, but sent it wide; while Saborío sent his directly at the keeper. Near the end of the game, a parried cross fell to Morales, who stabbed at it but barely sent it wide. Olave got a late header that Orozco barely kept out of the net; but Panamanian referee Roberto Moreno blew the final whistle, Real Salt Lake ran out of time, and Monterrey celebrated their first-ever international championship. Without a doubt, this was the best CCL final to date, although one wonders how long RSL will carry the scar of having let this trophy slip through their fingers.

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