SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — To become the first MLS team to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League final, Real Salt Lake must survive 90 minutes in the Monster's Cave.
Tonight, RSL will put its two-goal advantage on the line against the Costa Rican side Saprissa at the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in San José, known as the "Monster's Cave." The stadium, which was constructed in 1972, is considered one of CONCACAF's least-friendly venues, as its worn Astroturf pitch, concrete bleachers and raucous fans in close proximity to the field have intimidated dozens of foreign clubs and national teams over the years. Former U.S. players such as Alexi Lalas and Paul Caligiuri still recount horror stories of their experiences at the stadium, such as when Lalas was struck in the head by a thrown battery and when Caligiuri was sprayed with mace.
"We feel that it is our obligation to win when we are at home, and we always expect to win at the Cave," said Saprissa forward Alonso Solís Saturday. "We expect the fans to be a big part of the game Tuesday night, and that they will know that we are not only playing for Saprissa, but we are playing for all of Costa Rica. With that in mind, I'm confident we'll be tough to beat at home on Tuesday."
Despite the home-field advantage for Saprissa, RSL currently holds the far more important advantage, which is a 2-0 lead after the first leg of the two-game series. In the first game of the home-and-home series on March 15, Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola scored at Rio Tinto Stadium to put RSL in a position to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League final.
RSL also enters the game unbeaten thus far in 2011, and has given up only two goals in five games. It appears the stalwart RSL defense is picking up where it left off in 2010, when the club set an MLS record by conceding only 20 goals in 30 MLS regular-season games.
"We're somewhat proud of what we've done, but if we lose on Tuesday, we're going to be ultimately disappointed. That's our focus right now is to get through this round," said RSL defender Chris Wingert. "The first goal, period, is going to be huge for either team. If it's us scoring first, that will put us in an excellent position to advance. If it's them scoring first, momentum is going to be on their side and we're going to have a real battle on our hands."
While RSL will be focused on keeping Saprissa off the scoreboard, the task might be made easier by Saprissa's recent inability to find the back of the net. In the Costa Rican First Division regular season finale on Saturday night, Saprissa played rival Cartagines to a hapless 0-0 draw and have scored only nine goals in their last six regular-season games.
"Goals usually happen as matter of odds and we've been creating a lot of opportunities lately to score," said Saprissa midfielder Armando Alonso Saturday. "We haven't scored much in recent games, but the opportunities have been there. If we continue to give ourselves chances to score, goals will begin to fall."
Despite not having scored more than two goals in a First Division match since mid-February, Saprissa went unbeaten (5-0-2) in its last seven matches of the season to clinch the top seed in the national playoffs. Saprissa has won 29 First Division titles in Costa Rica and also won the 2005 CONCACAF Champions' Cup, the former name of the CONCACAF Champions League, when they beat Pumas of Mexico on a 3-2 aggregate score.
HOMECOMING KING: Tuesday will also mark Saborio's first appearance in his home nation as a member of RSL, and second time back in Costa Rica in two weeks. Saborio, who played for Saprissa for five seasons from 2001-2006, was in Costa Rica playing as a member of the national team last week in games against China and Argentina. In the March 26 match against China, the inaugural night of Costa Rica's new National Stadium, Saborio scored the first goal in stadium history in a 2-2 tie.
While Saborio was a national hero that night, it can be assumed his goal against China will be a distant memory when he enters the "monster's cave" as a member of the opposition.
Despite the anticipation of a fierce environment at the stadium, RSL coach Jason Kreis said that the team expects Saprissa to be tough at home, similar to the way RSL is at Rio Tinto Stadium, where they are unbeaten in 36 games.
"I think (we) can expect an atmosphere that's very similar to ours right now and our stadium," he said. "It's a group that gets there and really wills their team onto impressive results, and wills their team on to passionate emotional beginnings of matches."
If RSL can hold on to its advantage for 90 minutes on Tuesday, it will emerge from the "monster's cave" as the MLS's first team to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League final.