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Sandy • When Real Salt Lake coaches and players talk about their CONCACAF Champions League game next week as being a "must-win," they're not kidding.
Losing could tear the team apart.
If RSL cannot win at Tauro FC in Panama on Tuesday night, it almost certainly will fail to reach the tournament's knockout rounds. And if that happens, the team will not receive a crucial salary-budget bonus that comes from Major League Soccer possibly forcing it to disband the core group of players that has carried it through most of the last four seasons.
"The writing is very much on the wall," coach Jason Kreis said. "We have to go there and get all three points."
On the bright side for RSL, it appears to have a good shot.
Tauro has lost both of its qualifying-round games so far, including a 2-0 loss at RSL on Aug. 21, and has yet to score a goal.
But if RSL cannot escape with a victory, it will allow unblemished CS Herediano of Costa Rica the chance to clinch the top spot in their preliminary group when it plays Tauro at home Sept. 25.
Only the top team in the group advances to the knockout stages.
"Must win," defender Nat Borchers said. "Simple. Can't tie, can't lose. Have to win."
That's the path toward securing the salary-budget bonus RSL needs to help keep the band together at least another year.
The bonus comes in the form of what the league calls "allocation money," which can be used to subsidize salaries or player acquisition costs and reduce the amount charged against a team's $2.8 million salary budget. RSL could earn a similar bonus for winning the MLS Cup, however good those chances might appear at the moment.
League officials won't disclose the exact size of the bonus, but it's known to be six figures.
That might not seem like a lot in professional sports, but in the watch-every-penny world of MLS, it's enough to supplement several important players who otherwise might be lost.
The league provides the bonus as a way of supporting teams with a chance to win the Champions League and make a mark on the game internationally, since many of those teams need the financial help to retain key players who helped them qualify for the knockout rounds.
"It's meant to help keep their rosters together," league spokesman Will Kuhns said.
That's an issue because each Champions League tournament spans two MLS seasons, with qualifying rounds in the fall and knockout rounds in the spring. In between, teams such as RSL have to reconcile their rosters for a new league season, with players often due raises or new contracts.
Without the bonus money, general manager Garth Lagerwey confirmed, RSL would have to make some cuts.
"I like to say if the team is successful and advances in Champions League, we have a big incentive to keep them together," Lagerwey said. "And conversely, by succeeding in Champions League, we get more money, which allows us to keep the team together."
Tomato, tomahto, in other words.
Midfielder Javier Morales the highest-paid player on the team at $477,500 this season and defenders Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran have contracts due to expire after this season, and could be players whose demands can be met only with the help of the bonus allocation money. Other players will be due raises, too, while leading scorer Alvaro Saborio is among those who must wait to see if the team picks up an option on his contract, which pays him $405,000 this year.
What's more, midfielder Luis Gil is expected to graduate from the league's Generation Adidas program, meaning that his salary nearly $200,000 this season, according to the MLS players union will begin to count against the salary budget.
Talk about a fiscal cliff.
"There are definitely some decisions that have to be made if we don't win this game," Borchers acknowledged. "Fortunately, I don't have to be the one to make those decisions. But there's definitely some tough decisions to be made."
Even a victory in Panama doesn't assure anything, though.
It would simply keep alive RSL's hopes until its final group-stage game against Herediano on Oct. 23, when the teams would be playing a pressure-packed game at Rio Tinto Stadium for the right to advance to the knockout rounds.
"This is business," midfielder Will Johnson said. "This is getting down to the nitty-gritty. This is where good teams win games that are important, and that's what it's all about."
RSL at Tauro FC
P At Panama,Tuesday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • FOX Soccer
CONCACAF Champions League
W L T Pts
CS Herediano 2 0 0 6
Real Salt Lake 1 1 0 3
Tauro FC 0 2 0 0
RSL at Tauro, Tuesday,6 p.m. MDT
Tauro at Herediano, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. MDT
Herediano at RSL, Oct. 23, 8 p.m. MDT