Exhibition matches against the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid have become a rite of summer for Major League Soccer fans in recent years, as the European heavyweights attempt to fill their coffers and expand their brands on this side of the pond.
It's always been hard to fathom just how seriously these clubs take the games against North America's finest, with second-string lineups and lackadaisical attitudes often the norm. But a litmus test for MLS may be on the horizon.
Having reached the final of the CONCACAF Champions League (starting Wednesday night), Real Salt Lake is just two games away from being the first MLS club to represent North America's top soccer circuit at December's Club World Cup. The tournament pits the champions of FIFA's six regions, plus the champion of the host country - scheduled to be Japan this year, tsunami recovery permitting - to determine the world's best club team and hand out more than $16-million (U.S.) in prize money.
With the aforementioned European trio safely through to the last four of the UEFA Champions League, along with German side Schalke, the presence of one of the world's most-storied clubs is almost guaranteed. And if Salt Lake can get past Mexico's Monterrey in the two-legged CONCACAF final, MLS will get the chance to see exactly where it stands in the global soccer food chain.
Uniquely, almost every rival player and club is behind Real's quest.
"If they win, good for them - and it's good for the league," Drew Moor of the defending MLS champion Colorado Rapids - who compete annually with Salt Lake for the Rocky Mountain Cup - told MLSsoccer.com last week.
And there is no less support for the 2009 MLS Cup winners north of the border, too.
"What Real Salt Lake has done has opened a lot of eyes," Toronto FC midfielder Julian de Guzman said of a team that topped TFC's pool earlier in the tournament. "They're a great example, not just for ourselves, but for the rest of league for what they've been doing in representing MLS and making it to the finals with the type of football they've been able to produce. Hopefully, one day, we can reach that point."
Vancouver Whitecaps chief executive officer Paul Barber, a former executive at England's Tottenham Hotspur, already has one eye on the Club World Cup, and just how beneficial it would be to have an MLS team competing in it for the first time.
"It doesn't get bigger than continents playing continents," he said. "It's an important flagship for the league. It's the level we aspire to."
Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis is not getting ahead of himself though. While he knows that going to Japan in December "would easily be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," his club faces a tall order against Monterrey, particularly in Wednesday's first leg in Mexico, where MLS clubs have not won a competitive match, going 0-21-3 collectively.
Still, if Salt Lake can escape with a draw or narrow win, it can take comfort in going home for next Wednesday's second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, where it has not lost in 34 contests.
MLS has done its best to back Salt Lake's CONCACAF push. For the semi-final, the league ponied up for a direct charter flight to San Jose, Costa Rica, which let the team avoid a long airport layover and arrive rested for training for the match. RSL lost 2-1 to Saprissa on the road but it was close enough to take the aggregate 3-2 and make the finals.
This week, MLS allowed Salt Lake to postpone a league match, a home game against Philadelphia, that had been set for April 23, in between the two legs of the champions final. The Philly game has been moved to September.
On Tuesday, league executive vice-president Dan Courtemanche drummed up more league-wide support on Twitter, calling on fans to support "MLS4RSL."
After playing against Salt Lake four times last season, de Guzman knows the club is as well-equipped as any to represent MLS in the CONCACAF final and, hopefully, the Club World Cup.
"For me, they play the best football in the league," he said. "Since I've been in MLS, it's probably the best team I've played against in this league. The L.A.'s and New Yorks have guys with great names and whatnot, but you can see Real Salt Lake is a complete team."
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