Humberto Suazo comes to play in big games. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Monterrey have every reason to be down. When the Rayados meet Real Salt Lake in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final tonight, they will be forced to overcome a multitude of issues. After giving up two goals in the first match, Monterrey must win outright or score a minimum of two goals themselves to win the title. That will be no easy task, especially on the road in a place where their opponents haven’t lost in 37 games. Not to mention Monterrey haven’t won a game in their last seven outings. Also throw in some unfamiliar weather conditions (the temperature at kickoff will likely be almost 60 degrees colder than the first leg), and last but not least a few serious roster limitations. Much has been made of RSL's loss of Kyle Beckerman, but Monterrey have some even greater personnel hurdles to clear. Their best defensive midfielder Jesus Zavala is suspended, their best distributor of the ball, Luis Perez, is injured, and their second-best striker Aldo De Nigris is both injured and suspended. Add all these issues up and the prospects look dim for Monterrey capturing the CCL trophy. That's not necessarily the case, though, as the Rayados still bring several advantages to the match. Here we take a look at the reasons why Monterrey will overcome the adversity and these limitations to capture the CCL title tonight in Utah.
Vucetich Doesn't Lose Finals
Monterrey's Victor Manuel Vucetich has never lost a final as a manager. And this is not some young coach, either. Vucetich has been on the sidelines in Mexico for over two decades and has taken several different teams to league titles. He has won five Mexican Primera championships (two with Monterrey, one each with Pachuca, Tecos, and Leon), plus two second division titles (with Leon and Potros Neza), and also two titles in the now defunct Copa Mexico. Put simply, Vucetich knows how to motivate his team in these situations. Going into the second leg of a final at a disadvantage is also nothing new for the veteran manager. Last season, Santos led Monterrey 3-2 after the first leg of the Primera championship. Monterrey easily overcame this deficit, routing Santos 3-0 in the second leg to capture the trophy. Vucetich leads with an aura of calmness and confidence, and no doubt he will have his players ready to win tonight.
Big Game Suazo
If there is one major advantage Monterrey have over RSL it is star striker Humberto Suazo. Even at less than full strength (his shoulder pain is ongoing), Suazo is still the best player on the field. Not only is Suazo a top talent, he is also a player that rises to the occasion. He’s come through for his team on big stages many times before, and in this respect is every bit more a Michael Jordan than a Karl Malone (sorry Salt Lake City). In last year's Mexican Primera championship it was Suazo who led his team to victory, scoring two goals in that crucial second leg against Santos. When Monterrey won the league title in 2009, Suazo had three goals and one assist across the two final legs to carry his team to victory over Cruz Azul. In big games, when Monterrey needs a goal, it always seems like Suazo steps up and delivers. While still somewhat limited by injury, Suazo does now have three consecutive full games under his belt for the first time since back in February. If the Rayados are to win tonight, it will definitely take more of this Suazo big game magic.
Defense Wins Championships
Monterrey have to score to win, that much is obvious. But the flip side of that is conceding an early goal to RSL would be disastrous. Monterrey's best bet will be scoring first and then holding on for a 1-0 or 2-1 victory. Either way, conceding multiple goals to RSL is a sure death sentence. And while RSL did score twice in the first leg, it must be noted that this was a huge aberration. Other than the 2-2 draw to RSL, as well as one bad slip-up on the road against Cruz Azul two weeks ago (a 0-3 loss), Monterrey have not conceded more than one goal in a league or CCL match since January. Defense is this team's strong point. The Rayados have one of the sturdiest backlines in the league, along with the added bonus of one of Mexico’s best goalkeepers, Jonathan Orozco. While Monterrey have been greatly impacted by suspensions and injury, the defense remains largely intact. Likely starting central defenders Hiram Mier and Jose Basanta will certainly have their work cut out for them without the added protection of midfielder Jesus Zavala, but they are more than up to the task. And the longer Monterrey keeps RSL from scoring, the greater their chances of pulling out the road win become.
Pressure Shifts to RSL
Going into the first leg, RSL were playing with house money. Realistically the team had little chance of the road win, and instead were hoping for a score draw. That’s exactly what they accomplished, and now the team must return home to protect their advantage. With that 2-2 result in the first match, RSL have suddenly turned into the favorites, and going into the second leg it almost seems like they are now the consensus pick to win the trophy. It’s much more difficult playing as the favorites (and playing to protect a "lead"), than it is when expectations are at a minimum. The challenge for RSL will be to handle the pressure and finish the job. Monterrey, while not truly an underdog, enter the game with limited outside expectations. They also get to play 1,500 miles away from the harsh glare of the hometown media. Maybe this change of venue, and change of perceptions, will actually do Monterrey some good.
With all the (much deserved) praise for RSL getting the result in Monterrey, what has been lost is that the Rayados outplayed them for much of the match. A couple bounces, or even a couple referee decisions the other way, and Monterrey scores four or more goals. And for all the talk of Monterrey’s seven game winless streak, what is often overlooked is that the team have lost outright just once in that stretch (not to mention they were without Suazo for several games). More importantly, Monterrey have yet to lose in CCL play over all eleven games in the competition. Of course, RSL can win the title without winning tonight’s game, as a 1-1 draw would be all they need. Limiting Monterrey to one goal or less, though, won’t be easy. The Rayados will definitely score (other than that previously mentioned loss to Cruz Azul they haven’t been shut out in their last twelve matches), it’s just how many times. Even with losses in attacking personnel, there’s still plenty of great talent on the field. In addition to the play of Suazo, one key will be the play of Neri Cardozo attacking from the left side. Cardozo is a talented scorer in his own right, and will need to be a creative force for Monterrey in the absence of Perez. Whoever ends up partnering up top with Suazo in place of De Nigris also cannot be overlooked. Either Sergio Santana (if he’s fit to play) or Dario Carreno can hurt RSL if too much attention is focused on Suazo.
While it can be argued ad nauseam which team has the upper hand tonight, the fact is whatever the result this has already proven to be a fantastic series between two great teams. If Monterrey do in fact pull out the victory tonight, RSL can still hang their heads high, as they have no doubt proven more than worthy of running with one of the top dogs of the Mexican Primera.