LONDON (AP) – Some 16 months after leaving Costa Rica having become the first Major League Soccer team to clinch a place in the CONCACAF Champions League final, Real Salt Lake is back in the Central American country in search of the title that eluded the club back in 2011.
RSL kicks off the 2012-2013 CONCACAF Champions League tournament in Costa Rica on Tuesday night with a group match against Herediano. It's their first trip to Costa Rica since holding off Deportivo Saprissa in the second leg of the 2011 Champions League semifinals.
One of five MLS teams taking part in this season's tournament, Real Salt Lake returns to the competition for the first time since losing to Monterrey in the final in 2011. Boasting many of the same players responsible for that run to the final, Real Salt Lake is considered one of the league's best hopes for another deep tournament.
Ten of Real Salt Lake's regular starters from the squad that made the Champions League final run are back and RSL will be banking on a Costa Rican to lead the way. Forward Alvaro Saborio is enjoying his best MLS season since joining Real Salt Lake in 2010, and has scored 13 goals for Real Salt Lake, tied for second most in MLS this season.
With Fabian Espindola providing the speedy partner for Saborio up top, and Javier Morales healthy and at his playmaking best, it can be argued that the RSL attack is in better form now than it was when the 2010-2011 tournament took place.
Some major changes in the competition's format means that Real Salt Lake must win its group, which includes Herediano and Panamanian side Tauro FC in order to reach the quarterfinals. The reigning Costa Rican champion, Herediano's first title in 22 years has given the club its first CONCACAF Champions League group stage appearance. Tauro FC has taken part in the group stage previously, having been eliminated in this round in the 2008-2009 tournament.
"There really is no room for error this time," Real Salt Lake captain Beckerman told CONCACAF's website. "So it is cut throat with only three teams and having to win. But I think it's exciting and it does cut out a little of the travel."
RSL has been one of the better road teams in MLS, boasting a 4-4-2 record (with two of those losses coming against San Jose in matches RSL drew red cards in). The grind of traveling to Costa Rica and playing on short rest could prove challenging, but it is something a majority of RSL's players have gone through before.
Herediano is not one of the traditional powers of Costa Rica, but will come in with the confidence of having won the league in May. Known as the "La Gloria Florense", Herediano just kicked off the new Costa Rica season with an impressive 2-0 victory against Santos.
Real Salt Lake will be banking on the experience of players like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Jamison Olave and Saborio to win Group 2 as they are expected to and will also feature some new players who were not a part of the 2011 run to the final. Players like young standout Luis Gil and veteran midfielder Jonny Steele - who played on the Puerto Rico Islanders squad that reached the 2009 Champions League semifinals - should prove vital for Salt Lake.
"We're really excited," Beckerman said. "It's been a goal of ours since we lost that final to get back in it and see if we can make another run at the trophy.
"We had a lot of fun in it last time. So hopefully we can put on some good performances and have a go at this."
After a year away from the competition, Real Salt Lake returns with a clear mission in mind: to return to the Champions League final. Two years ago, RSL's last step to the final took place in Costa Rica. On Tuesday, they will be hoping their first step in Costa Rica will be just as successful.