CARSON, Calif. – In the early days of Major League Soccer, Bruce Arena’s D.C. United squads set the standard around the league.
Not only did D.C. claim the first two MLS Cups, but Arena’s team also piled up a meaningful international title. D.C. United were the first MLS team to win a CONCACAF championship, claiming the 1998 Champions' Cup with a victory over Toluca.
While having been the first MLS team to win an international competition, Arena said the challenge facing RSL is unlike what D.C. went through to win 13 years ago.
“It was great, but [a] different scenario than it is now," he said. "We played a championship format. It was a little different, but Salt Lake has gotten good experience in the group play to be prepared for this. They obviously know what’s at stake.”
The other team to claim a CONCACAF title is Arena’s current team, the LA Galaxy. Like D.C., the Galaxy won the 2000 Champions' Cup when it was held over a week-long stretch. Since the tournament morphed into a home-and-away format in 2002, and then a full tournament with a group stage and knockout round in 2008, an MLS team has not reached the final until now. Real Salt Lake are aiming to be the third MLS outfit to win a league championship. (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT, FOX Soccer, Telefutura)
In 1998, D.C. played host to the Champions' Cup. In their quarterfinal match, United routed Trinidadian side Joe Public 8-0, then beat Mexican side León, who had previously ousted MLS Cup '97 runners-up Colorado in a qualifying series. After their 2-0 win, D.C. beat Toluca in the final 1-0 on a goal by Eddie Pope.
After D.C. and the Galaxy won it two years apart, such a thought may have seemed improbable.
“I don’t think at that point in time anyone kind of understood that we were going to have this type of dry run in the competition,” Arena said. “Now that it’s been such a big gap, I think it will be a great achievement for the league and certainly for Salt Lake.”
RSL will have to do what D.C. United did not have to, as RSL will play in Monterrey in the first leg of the series on Wednesday.
“Having the first game away is never easy," Arena said. "I think it’s easier the other way, when you have the first game at home."
Still, the opportunity for RSL to etch their names among D.C. United and the LA Galaxy in MLS lore exists. Salt Lake will have an advantage heading back to Utah for the second leg, scheduled for April 27, and as long as the series is close after the first leg, there is a chance for a third regional trophy for MLS.
“The good thing they have is they have a little altitude when Monterrey has to come back to Salt Lake," Arena said. "The altitude in Salt Lake is going to be a factor. If they can keep the game even or within a goal, I think they’ll have a chance at home to win.”