On a chilly autumn evening on Oct. 23, Real Salt Lake’s home stadium in Sandy, Rio Tinto, was aglow with anticipation. --- The crowd’s excitement was as palpable as their breath coiling into the cold night air. Barra Real, one of the larger supporters groups, made their customary march around the bowl, waving flags, banging drums and blowing trumpets. They knew how important this match was.
RSL was about to complete the group stage of CONCACAF Champion’s League play and, as usual, there was no margin for error. Their opponents were CS Herediano, the Costa Rican champions, whom Real was trailing by one point in aggregate. Because the new CONCACAF rules only allow one team from each group to advance past this stage, Real had to win 1-0 or by two goals.
Rain fell as the teams took the pitch. It wouldn’t let up for the entirety of the match. On a night ripe for soccer, neither did Real. Almost immediately, opportunities came. Herediano’s strategy, due to their position in the group, seemed to be to sit back on their laurels and hope for the best until the 90th tick sent them to the Quarterfinals. This nearly backfired on them. Many times.
In the sixth minute, Real forward Fabian Espindola had possibly the best chance of the night. Even though there were at least 10 Herediano players behind midfield, Espindola somehow got behind them and sent a goal sailing just over the woodwork. His next chance came moments later in the 14th minute, when his cross skipped harmlessly in front of the goal. No one was there to put it in.
The first of many controversial calls came soon after, when Real midfielder Javier Morales kicked a corner onto the head of defender Nat Borchers and the ball flew into the net. But the referee disallowed the score due to a foul.
It just wasn’t RSL’s night.
Nearly 30 minutes into the game, Morales sent another ball straight at goal, only to have young Herediano goalkeeper Leonel Moreira tap it swiftly away with but a single glove. In all, he’d have eight saves on the night.
The game continued in much the same fashion for the next 60 minutes -- RSL with countless chances, including another disallowed goal in the 61st minute, and Herediano on the defensive. The visitors would only really have one shot, in the 57th minute, which smacked against the goalpost and out of bounds.
The crowd got restless as Herediano stalled for time. Throughout the game, they slid and dived and flopped like men with no bones in their bodies, and the ref finally decided to notice and awarded yellow cards to a few of them, Moreira included.
The last 10 minutes were frantic. Even Real Salt Lake’s own goalkeeper, Nick Rimando, came up to try and bolster the attack. RSL manager Jason Kreis would send in three subs -- Johnny Steele, Kenny Mansally, and Sebastian Velasquez -- all of them attackers.
But alas, the final whistle blew, and Real Salt Lake knew their fate: 0-0. They had been tossed out of the Champion’s League. Amid a sea of celebrating Herediano players, Real Salt Lake hung their heads and stalked off the pitch.
They had done everything they could. Except score a goal.