BEAVERTON, Ore. – Ned Grabavoy remembers the environment outside of Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá in San José, Costa Rica, the night that he and his then-Real Salt Lake teammates traveled there to play Saprissa in 2011.
“It's an interesting little drive and hike up a hill where fans are ready before the game,” Grabavoy said of that bus ride. “Fans are ready around the stadium to let you know that it's going to be a difficult night. I think from that moment we knew how difficult of a task it was going to be [to get a result], but we embraced that a little bit.”
Armed with a 2-0 aggregate lead heading into the match, RSL lost 2-1 in Costa Rica but that all-important away goal held up to be the series winner as they advanced 3-2 over Saprissa in the semifinals.
On Wednesday, Grabavoy will once again make that drive into “The Monster's Cave,” this time with Portland Timbers teammates who will take on Saprissa in CONCACAF Champions League group play on Tuesday (7pm PT, Stream: CONCACAF Facebook Page).
At Saprissa, Grabavoy explains, you have to earn that result in an “old school” stadium that is undoubtedly one of the most storied places to play in the CONCACAF region.
“You got the locker rooms underneath the stands and it's old concrete,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like the place is going to fall down on you. All those things add into it a little bit: the stadium noise, the atmosphere, the tiny locker rooms, the fans right on top of you letting you hear it before [the game] and at half-time.
Few other fans in CONCACAF are as notorious for their loud in-stadium atmosphere as the Costa Ricans. The pre-game and in-game antics of Costa Rica's soccer fans are the stuff of legend.
That level of win-at-all-costs fandom – and gamesmanship – definitely presents an exciting task. But Grabavoy believes that this Timbers squad is filled with enough players who have experienced that kind of passion before and will remain unintimidated by Saprissa's raucous atmosphere.
“We have a lot of players that have played in all parts of the world on this team,” he said. “I've looked at that and said to myself, 'I hope that serves us well,' because we have a lot of veteran guys...and guys that have come from places where there's some difficult places to play so we have a number of guys like that to lean on.”
“We have a lot of guys that have experience in difficult circumstances,” said Grabavoy.
But according to Grabavoy, the most difficult challenge for an MLS team is not so much the travel and the often hostile road environment, but the scheduling. All three of the Timbers' final Champions League group matches fall right in the middle of the late-season MLS playoff push.
“I think because it's towards the end of this MLS season, some clubs maybe lose sight and focus of how important [the CONCACAF Champions League] is,” said Grabavoy. “But I've been there before and I can only tell you that advancing out of the group stage and finding yourself in the knockout round early the next season and having something to play for right away is really, really special.”
This team, Grabavoy insists, was built to advance into the knockout stage of the Champions League, so the moment is one that the team is attacking head on.
“We've seen how difficult it is in MLS to go on these very long road trips...but this is why we built a deep squad here. Guys are going to be counted on. We have a very important balance [with] the playoffs [coming up] and to me – and the rest of this club – it's very important that we try and advance in this tournament.”