Monterrey Claims Another Champions League Title For Mexico

Favorites since the tournament’s opening kickoff last summer, the team known as the Rayados (striped), took command of the match with a goal from their Chilean superstar Humberto Suazo, at the end of the first half. The lead was never safe though, as the Americans pressed hard for the equalizer throughout the second half.

Given the way they performed over both games, the Mexican squad deserved the title, but Salt Lake pushed them to the very brink. Often with their backs to the wall in the opening match, the 2009 MLS Cup winners showed great resolve in a spirited 2-2 result. They even struck fear in the hearts of the Mexican defenders on a number of free kick and corner kick situations.

For Salt Lake supporters, there was reason for optimism heading into the return leg, considering the club’s unbeaten streak of 37 matches at Rio Tinto Stadium, across all competitions. Their last home defeat dated back to May 16, 2009, versus Kansas City.

Despite a great start, they missed too many opportunities. Fabian Espindola was especially unfortunate in front of the opposing goal. After weathering the storm, Monterrey put its talent on display before halftime. Suazo, who nearly opened the scoring earlier in the game, found the back of the net off a pretty passing play with Santana.

Salt Lake pushed hard over the final 30 minutes, giving the Mexican defenders all they could handle, with every corner kick posing more and more danger. On several attempts, Saborio, Morales and company came within a hair of tying it up, which would have given their club the Champions League title by virtue of away goals. There was constant activity in front of the Mexican goal, but there was always a defender’s head or foot to clear the ball away. The final moments were thrilling, with the Monterrey players hanging on for dear life.

The win punched Monterrey’s ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup, which takes place in Japan this coming December. Monterrey will face the Champions League winners from the other continental zones around the world (Europe, Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania), as well as a club representing the host nation.

The Mexican roster is quite impressive. Aside from Suazo, Mexican international Ricardo Osorio played for his country at last year’s World Cup in South Africa. Santana and Jonathan Orozco (Mexico), Osvaldo Martinez (Paraguay), Neri Cardozo (Argentina) and Walter Ayovi (Ecuador) have all worn their respective national colors. Captain Luis Perez and Aldo De Nigris, who missed Wednesday night’s game, are other stars for Mexico.

Monterrey’s payroll is higher than Salt Lake’s, which is limited by Major League Soccer’s salary cap. Despite the limitations, the Utah club was able to put a competitive team together. Costa Rican star forward Alvaro Saborio is the club’s designated player (only a portion of that player’s salary counts toward the team’s cap). The other notable player is Will Johnson, who has played midfield for Canada. As for Andy Williams, he has nearly 100 caps for Jamaica. Jean Alexandre (Haïti), Arturo Alvarez (Salvador), as well as Americans Chris Wingert, Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers and Kyle Beckerman have all played for their national sides. With Colombia’s Olave, as well as a few Argentines, the club has a strong Latin American flavor.

Those players made for an offensive-minded club with a solid back line. In 2010, Salt Lake had the best attack and defense in MLS. In Champions League play, the team was just as potent offensively, but its defensive play suffered at the international level. Nevertheless, Salt Lake still made an incredible run. First in Group A, ahead of Cruz Azul (finalists in 2009 and 2010), Salt Lake ousted Columbus in the quarterfinals, before disposing of Saprissa, Saborio’s former club, in the semifinals. With that, the United States claimed bragging rights over Costa Rica and Honduras as the continent’s second-best nation at the club level.

Mexico is an immovable force at the top of that list. In fact, since the tournament’s inception in 2008, no team has been eliminated by a foreign club. Salt Lake nearly claimed that honor with a formidable showing versus Monterrey, but instead, we’ll have to wait to see the Mexicans knocked off their prestigious pedestal.

Matthias Van Halst, Impact Media