For Real Salt Lake, the end of the road also could be the start of a dramatic new one, complete with the mouthwatering prospect of rubbing shoulders with the finest teams in the world.
The Utah club will visit Mexico's Monterrey on Wednesday in the CONCACAF Champions League final, the first installment of a home-and-home series that will determine if it can become the first Major League Soccer team to win the region's top interleague competition.
If it does, it won't just be plaudits and an admirable little slice of history that awaits. The winner of the CCL will be granted an automatic place in the quarterfinal of December's Club World Cup, a tournament held in Japan that features every continental champion.
Given that the representative of the UEFA Champions League will be Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United or Schalke, and that the South American victor also is likely to be a team of exceptional tradition and pedigree, it is easy to see why RSL is dreaming big.
"I was just thinking, 'Wow … we could actually play one of these teams,' " defender Tony Beltran told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Everything has happened so quickly. It is mind-boggling a little bit."
RSL has put together a nice little success story since entering MLS in 2005. It has no designated players or superstars, but is a solid squad with a good spirit both in the locker room and community. Its tidy stadium in Sandy is regularly filled.
Salt Lake snatched the MLS Cup on penalty kicks from the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy in 2009, but this clash offers the possibility for a much greater achievement and would be perhaps the strongest indicator yet that the league is heading in the right direction.
Mexican teams have consistently dominated the event since the current format was adopted in 2008, producing seven out of eight semifinalists in the first two seasons. Yet while the Primera Liga will remain better stocked and considerably wealthier than MLS regardless of the results on the next two Wednesdays, an RSL win would be genuine proof that the gap in standard is closing.
"It really is big," said head coach Jason Kreis, whose efforts in Utah have caused him to be mentioned as a possible long-term successor to United States boss Bob Bradley. "At the beginning of last year I would have told you that we were really excited about the opportunity, but didn't appreciate how big it was or could be until now."
MLS teams have often been at a disadvantage in the CCL, given that the competition starts in July and the quarterfinals are held during the MLS offseason. Smaller squads than their Mexican counterparts also means MLS teams can be at a competitive disadvantage and are more affected by overcrowding of the schedule. However, the league has worked with RSL and let it shift an MLS regular-season game against the Philadelphia Union all the way back to September to allow full preparation for Monterrey.
Even so, the Mexican team will go in as a strong favorite. Monterrey is the reigning champion of its domestic league and will feature Chilean star Humberto Suazo at the head of a potent attacking strike force.
RSL has shown it is not afraid of being dismissed as an underdog, though. And if any extra perspective is needed, the stars of Monterrey pale in comparison to those that lay tantalizingly in wait for the champion.
- CONCACAF Champions League
- Major League Soccer