SmorgasBorg: How RSL's CCL run will change MLS

Club has made an impact on US soccer without winning trophy

SALT LAKE CITY – Some said that Real Salt Lake would
have changed the face of MLS for good had they knocked off Mexican champs
Monterrey to advance to the FIFA Club World Cup.

That’s an observation for the simpletons.

They don’t understand that win or lose the CONCACAF Champions League finals, the MLS club had
already changed the face of the league. A CCL trophy or a
couple of matches played in Japan in December would not have achieved what RSL
already had, probably unbeknownst to the team itself.

By becoming the first team to publicly state that the Champions League was its
primary focus months ago, Real Salt Lake took the onus off all the other MLS
clubs. The fact is that it’s
been taboo to put the CCL ahead of MLS competitions. No club has ever made it a
priority in the past, despite the rhetoric that may have blown our way from
other cities.

And even if teams were ever half-serious about the CCL, they
never acted on it. RSL were the first team to start a de facto reserve side
and defeat another MLS club in league play to preserve their top players for CCL games. And they
also became the first to substantially shake up their regular-season schedule and invest
in charter flights to give the squad the very best shot to succeed in the
Champions League.

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Real Salt Lake were rewarded for those efforts, going
farther in the competition than no other MLS team has gone before and watching sell-out crowds
attend CONCACAF matches at Rio Tinto Stadium when temperatures were not very inviting.

And why wouldn’t MLS teams make it a priority? RSL manager
Jason Kreis himself admitted that the matches in the Champions League have
exposed his team to new competitive realities and also exposed RSL’s weaknesses on the field in a
way that MLS league matches do not. They will be better off for this run.

If you thought that RSL were already the best team in MLS,
expect them to improve even further. Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey will address
the deficiencies that prevented them from getting past a very beatable
Monterrey side.

Expect to see them tweak their squad and its tactical flexibility
over the next year, perhaps with a greater role for Paulo Jr. – arguably the
best finisher on the team, especially because it’s hard to believe that Wednesday's
entire starting XI will still be intact for the 2012-13 Champions League, should
they qualify.

With the precedent set by RSL this year, there is now no excuse for
teams to shortchange the CONCACAF Champions League. No more hiding behind travel concerns or
roster limitations (30 players are more than enough to face league and CCL
dates). No more talk about how those games carry no weight for fans and don't transcend.

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That's why every American fan should tip their cap to RSL and not just
for going where no MLS team has gone before. But also for thinking the way no
MLS team has done before. And this one cup run has elevated the Champions
League's profile to become more important around the United States.

As a result, fan bases around the
league will be more demanding of their clubs’ performances in the CCL. It will
no longer be an afterthought. Thanks to RSL.

This is no silver lining in the storm cloud named Humberto
Suazo that rained all over RSL’s CONCACAF Champions League party at Rio Tinto
Stadium on Wednesday night. Save the consolation speeches because that loss
will hurt the RSL faithful for years to come. Kreis himself called it a
“once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” which lined up perfectly for RSL.

But RSL’s history will be richer for this run, their
connection with their fans will be deeper and their supporter base will be
larger with new converts.

RSL’s magical midweek cup nights over the past 10 months,
and the hair-raising moments that came with them, have now given license for
other MLS teams and their fans to dream the same CCL dreams that RSL did.

Congratulations are in order.