SANDY — In what seemed like an inconvenience when it was first announced — after all, nobody wants to play a game three days before traveling to play again in the Texas heat — Real Salt Lake has fully embraced the unique opportunity it faces in the quarterfinals of the inaugural Leagues Cup on Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
RSL hosts Liga MX champions Tigres at 8:30 p.m. in one of four single-elimination quarterfinal games between MLS teams and Mexican teams.
“It’s an honor to play against a team like Tigres, a storied club,” said RSL coach Mike Petke.
The winner advances to the semifinals on Aug. 20 at a site to be determined. The final is scheduled for Sept. 20 in Las Vegas at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Wednesday will be the seventh competitive match in club history for RSL against Mexican teams, and the first since a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series against Tigres back in 2016.
Tigres won the first leg at home 2-0 and then earned a 1-1 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium to advance. Previously RSL played two games against Cruz Azul in CCL group play back in 2010, and then famously played Monterrey in the Champions League final in 2011, losing on aggregate 3-2 after falling at home 1-0 in the second leg.
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said there’s always a different feel to the games against Mexican clubs because of their technical ability all over the field.
“The way they’re going to play, whether it’s Tigres or any of the teams in the tournament, their main objective is possession, possession, possession, and when they lose the ball it’s almost a retreat,” said Beckerman. “They definitely punish you if you give the ball away cheaply, they’re not going to give it away easily.”
The other three Leagues Cup matches pit Houston vs. Club America, L.A. Galaxy vs. Tijuana and Chicago vs. Cruz Azul. The four Mexican League teams qualified for the tourney by virtue of their finish in Liga MX last year. The four MLS teams were included by invitation. The tournament hopes to expand to 16 teams next season.
“Anytime you get to play in a competition like this and opponents like this, it gets you excited, it gets me excited,” said Petke.
RSL’s coach said he is taking the competition very seriously and will put the best lineup out on Wednesday night that fitness will allow. With last weekend’s home draw against Minnesota and then a game this Saturday against FC Dallas, some lineup rotation is inevitable.
The same goes for Tigres, which opened its 2019 Apertura season last weekend with a 4-2 win against Monarcas. It plays again on Sunday in a league match against Guadalajara.
“We always want to come out on the front foot no matter who we play, especially at home, but at the end of the day it’s going to be a very tough challenge for us because that’s the respect we have for a team like Tigres,” said Petke.
The condensed versions of Leagues Cup, and the simple fact that MLS teams are hosting Mexican teams in the single-elimination quarterfinals, increases the odds of an MLS breakthrough.
Since the CONCACAF Champions League expanded its format in 2008, a Mexican team has won the title every year. In fact, in eight of those years it beat a Liga MX rival in the final. MLS teams have only reached the final three times — RSL in 2011, Montreal in 2015 and Toronto in 2018.
For MLS to start garnering the respect it desires in the region, Beckerman said, “MLS teams have to start winning these tournaments.”
A familiar face could be standing in RSL’s way on Wednesday. Former Real Salt Lake defender Carlos Salcedo will anchor Tigres’ backline after signing with the club this summer following three seasons in Europe. He spent his first two professional seasons with RSL back in 2012 and 2013 before departing for Mexico and signing with Guadalajara.
He’s been a regular starter for the Mexican National Team the past four years, starting every game at the 2018 World Cup and then anchoring Mexico’s Gold Cup championship earlier this month.
“Carlos, he’s done an unbelievable job. Saw him here as a really young player … he was really hungry and wanted to play right away,” said Beckerman. “He’s a top player now, a regular starter for the Mexican National Team.”