RSL is punching far above its economic weight in Champions League finals vs. free-spending Monterrey.
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When Real Salt Lake takes the field against Monterrey of Mexico for the decisive home leg of their CONCACAF Champions League finals series at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday night, the only apparent difference between the players will be the color of their jerseys.
But there's far more to it than that.
While RSL already has made impression enough by driving to within one game of reaching the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup, its accomplishment takes on an even greater shine when cast against the backdrop of the vast financial disparities between the teams.
Most experts believe Monterrey's payroll is three to five times larger than the $2.675 million that RSL is allowed to pay its players under Major League Soccer budget rules the team's actual payroll is just slightly under the limit while the combined value of the Monterrey players on the international transfer market might be even greater.
Unlike most U.S. sports, payrolls for most soccer teams around the world are not widely known or followed. It is the transfer fees the money that teams pay one another to acquire the contract rights for players, apart from actual salaries that attract the most attention as indicators of a player's value and a source of team revenue.
And according to the Transfer Market website based in Germany that tracks the estimated market value of players around the world, the players for Monterrey could expect to command a whopping $61.9 million in transfer fees far more than the $9.4 million that the RSL players are potentially worth.
Star forward Humberto Suazo alone, in fact, is estimated to be worth more ($10.2 million) than the entire RSL team put together.
The figures are rough estimates but they reflect the wide disparity between the perceived value of the players on the global market.
By that admittedly imprecise measure, RSL is even more financially outmatched against Monterrey than the Kansas City Royals against the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball. The Yankees are paying their players about 5.6 times as much as the Royals this season; the estimated transfer value for Monterrey players is 6.6 times greater than that of RSL.
No matter how you cut it, the chasm is gaping.
"At the beginning of this tournament, I'm not sure how many Mexican teams or teams from around the tournament would have circled us and said, 'Oh, man, we don't want to play them,' " midfielder Will Johnson said. "But I think we've showed everyone we're a good team and we deserve to be here."
Indeed, RSL has charged through the tournament upsetting convention at every turn.
It put an unusual focus on succeeding, for one thing, and has become the first U.S. team to reach the finals since the tournament was expanded to its current form in 2008 and the first to advance this far at all since the Los Angeles Galaxy won what was then called the Champions Cup in 2000.
In the first leg of the finals at Monterrey, it became just the fourth MLS team in 25 tries to avoid losing a meaningful game in Mexico, with a dramatic 2-2 draw that put it in excellent position to win the tournament.
"That's all you can really ask," midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "We're right there. We have a chance to do it."
The financial disparity also illustrates how successful RSL has been in identifying and obtaining talented players without breaking the bank.
In fact, coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey built the team significantly with players whom few others wanted. Most of its starting lineup was acquired with little to no compensation for contract rights or with draft picks obtained from previous transactions.
Grabavoy was taken in a waiver draft, for example, while defender Chris Wingert and goalkeeper Nick Rimando came in trades for virtually meaningless draft picks.
Several stars, such as forward Alvaro Saborio, midfielder Javier Morales and defender Jamison Olave, first joined RSL on loan from teams that were willing to farm them out rather than play them, and nobody on the roster earns more than about $250,000 in annual salary.
All of it put together, coaches and players said, makes their potential achievement all the more satisfying.
"It does, and it strengthens our belief in our core philosophy about the team being the star," Kreis said. "And that we think that collectively we can be better than the sum of our parts. The fact that we can compete with and hopefully on Wednesday beat a Mexican team that's spending nearly three times as much as we are on player salaries would be extremely gratifying."
Monterrey at RSL
P At Rio Tinto Stadium,8 p.m., Wednesday
TV • Fox Soccer