Kyle Beckerman celebrates Real Salt Lake's MLS Cup victory over the L.A. Galaxy. Photo: John Todd, isiphotos.com
SEATTLE - The big story of the 2009 MLS season was the Los Angeles Galaxy improving from worst to first in the Western Conference. The big story for the 2009 post-season is Real Salt Lake going from the lowest seeded contender to the MLS Cup Championship. Following a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes of play, Real Salt Lake beat the odds in taking out the big-name Galaxy by winning the penalty kick shootout 5-4.
Third-year head coach Jason Kreis shed his normal stoic pose for one of exaltation following the match. "I'm obviously, extremely, extremely pleased for the players first and foremost. They've put in so much work over the two years most of them have been together now. We started off with a dream and an idea about what this team could look like and would look like over time."
Kreis has been with Real Salt Lake for the entirety of the club's existence — the first two-plus years as a player, and the last three as coach. He never doubted that his team could win the championship, as long as they could get into the final eight. "What we saw this year was that at certain points in the season and in certain games, we saw what we were capable of. We saw when we played our best soccer we were one of the best teams in the league. So now it's nice to say we are the best team in the league."
In the losing locker room, Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena remained diplomatic following the disappointing penalty kick shootout. "We didn't play well enough over 120 minutes to win the game. When you get into the shootout, anything can happen, and certainly we came out on the short end tonight. But, I give my congratulations to Real Salt Lake."
David Beckham was equally congratulatory toward Real Salt Lake. After making a visit to the winner's locker room to offer his best to his opponents, he offered his thoughts on RSL. "I've been hearing all week that Salt Lake were not favored. People talk about them being the underdog coming into this. We drew and lost against them during the regular season, so I wouldn't say they were the underdogs. They are a very good team and we said that before we stepped out for the game. They deserved to be here and they deserved to win tonight."
The path to the MLS Cup Final was not easy for Salt Lake. Due to the peculiarities of the playoff system, the team was shipped to the Eastern Conference bracket as the fourth seed. Facing the defending MLS champions Columbus Crew, RSL soundly dispatched the East's number one seed 4-2 on aggregate over a two-match series. Their reward was a trip to Toyota Park to face Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Brian McBride, and the Chicago Fire. Real Salt Lake, not known for their success on the road, kept the Fire at bay for a full 120 minutes of scoreless play. In the penalty kick shootout to decide the winner, goalkeeper Nick Rimando carried his team to victory and the awkward title of Eastern Conference Champion.
Real Salt Lake came to Seattle's Qwest Field with the confidence that they could beat the star-studded cast of the Los Angeles Galaxy. A shift in tactics and mentality over the last month of the season had prepared the club to play to their potential. While RSL had finished the season with more losses than wins, their form entering the playoffs looked nothing like that of a losing team. Kreis had stressed all week that his team was only now playing up to their potential, and shouldn't really be considered an underdog against the Galaxy.
However, it was Los Angeles who controlled the game from the opening whistle. The Galaxy formation seemed well suited to establish possession on the wings, and it wasn't long before the Salt Lake defenders were busy contending with the wide play of David Beckham and surprise starter Chris Birchall. Another change to the Galaxy line-up was the inclusion of Jovan Kirovski for the sickness stricken Dema Kovalenko in the holding midfielder role. While it didn't seem to impact the game in the early going, not having Kovalenko and his hard-charging play available did remove an important part of the Galaxy's defensive character.
The short-passing possession strategy that RSL had employed so successfully the week before against Chicago was not nearly as effective in the early going of the match. Salt Lake continually found it difficult to link possession from team captain Kyle Beckerman and the defensive line to the two speedy forwards Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan. And in the 15th minute of the match, it would only get worse for Salt Lake.
A hard—some would argue reckless—challenge on RSL midfielder Javier Morales by Beckham left the playmaker visibly injured. He gamely tried to continue playing, but was soon substituted for veteran Clint Mathis in the 22nd minute. Team officials later announced that Morales was diagnosed with an LCL strain as a result of the knee-to-knee contact with Beckham. The forced change in the midfield dramatically changed the tactics designed by Kreis, as he had to abandon the diamond formation he started the game with for a more conventional 4-4-2. Mathis could certainly add his tenacity on the ball to the team, but RSL would sorely miss the creative passing Morales could provide.
Fortunately for Salt Lake, the Galaxy could not take advantage of the early changes in the RSL formation, and they failed to create any genuine scoring opportunities over the first 40 minutes of the match. Forward Edson Buddle and midfielder Landon Donovan were nearly invisible for significant stretches of the game. However, a poor giveaway by RSL near midfield left the ball at the feet of Beckham, with plenty of space in front of him.
It took until the 41st minute, but the Galaxy's dynamic duo of Beckham and Donovan struck for the opening goal of the game. The score sheet reads Mike Magee as the goal scorer, but his was the simplest of tap-ins as he converted Donovan's crossing pass at the far post. The sequence started when Beckham sprung Donovan wide on the right flank after he had dribbling the ball deep into the RSL end of the field. Donovan took the ball to the endline, before whipping the ball across the goalmouth for Magee's second score of the postseason. The Galaxy had a 1-0 lead that they would take to the locker room at half-time.
Real Salt Lake had fallen behind earlier in these playoffs—2-0 to the Columbus Crew in the second leg of their first round series—and started the second half showing no signs of lacking confidence in their ability to climb back into the game. Substitute Ned Grabavoy came into the game for the ailing and exhausted Will Johnson, where he joined first half substitute Clint Mathis in a new look Real Salt Lake midfield. Coach Kreis remarked on the changes coming out in the second half: "For me it wasn't so much about the switches we made, it was just about the mentality of the group being able to calm down and play soccer. I thought we were just too often trying to thread those very narrow passes in through the middle. We needed to play out wide and be a bit more patient."
Central midfielder Kyle Beckerman helped lead the charge as he directed the ball forward into the Galaxy end of the field. "We were able to possess the ball a lot in the midfield. When we made the extra pass in the midfield, we were able to really create a lot and get into their half and get pretty deep and behind some of their players."
The added pressure by Salt Lake was visibly taking its toll on the Galaxy defenders, as they were often forced to scramble back to protect their goal with greater frequency. In the 64th minute, they finally yielded what to most observers seemed to be an inevitable equalizer. A fierce shot from Yura Movsisyan was blocked by the Galaxy defense, but landed near an unmarked Robbie Findley. He did not hesitate in lashing in a shot that left goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts with little chance to make the save. For Findley, he knew RSL would eventually break through. "We had plenty of time to get one back. The ball was just bouncing around in the area. It fell by my foot, and I was able to put it in the goal."Landon Donovan realized the equalizer was coming. "We knew in the second half that they were going to throw a lot at us, and they did a good job of moving the ball and putting us under pressure. I'm not quite sure what happened on the goal. It was pretty sloppy. But in the end they probably deserved to get a goal at some point."
The Los Angeles Galaxy appeared deflated by Findley's goal, and soon suffered an additional blow when Ricketts had to leave the game with a severely bruised right hand. The swelling on the hand began after an awful collision in the early minutes of the second half, and had finally progressed to the point that he could no longer continue in the match. Reserve goalkeeper Josh Saunders was summoned in his place - the first time in MLS Cup history that a goalkeeper was substituted. Saunders immediately knew the pressure would be on him to stem the resurgent RSL attack from taking the lead. "We had plenty of time to get one back. The ball was just bouncing around in the area. It fell by my foot, and I was able to put it in the goal.
Real Salt Lake continued to enjoy the lion's share of possession for the next 20 minutes, but could not find a second goal. The momentum slowly turned back to the Galaxy, but they appeared to be running out of energy as the second half reached a conclusion. Seven minutes of added time could not settle the match, so a 30 minute extra time was required. By this stage of the match, both teams were showing signs of exhaustion. Cramping seemed common, as were unfinished runs and lack of hustling back on defense. Both teams did create some scoring opportunities in the extra period—most notably a Findley shot that was cleared from danger by substitute defender A.J. DeLaGarza—but couldn't settle the 1-1 tie. For the second time in MLS Cup history—the first time had the Houston Dynamo defeat the New England Revolution in 2005—the league championship would be determined by a penalty kick shootout.
The players slumped over in their places, collectively catching their breath after an exhausting 120 minutes of action. As the Qwest Field crew repaired the damaged goal netting at the south end of the stadium, the two head coaches put together their line-ups for the penalty kick shootout. The Galaxy would be first to shoot, and down the field strolled David Beckham to set up for the start of what he would later describe as "football's version of Russian roulette." He slammed it past goalkeeper Nick Rimando to give the Galaxy the 1-0 lead. Mathis and Findley would score for RSL, and Gregg Berhalter would add the second goal for LA to level the shootout at 2 apiece. The next two kicks were expertly saved by the goalkeepers, bringing up Landon Donovan—as close to a sure thing with penalty kicks as you will see in soccer.
Donovan went about his usual pre-kick routine, before staring down the RSL keeper. Rimando explained later that he felt confident that he could stop Donovan in this situation. "I wanted to stay in the middle as long as I could, because I knew he was going to look up and he likes to go down the middle high. I though he was going to go to the right a little bit. I think just staying that extra bit kind of made him think a little bit."
Next came the unthinkable for most followers of the Galaxy captain - he skied the penalty kick well over the crossbar. Maybe Rimando did affect Donovan, but he didn't hesitate to take responsibility for the poorly taken shot. "The penalty I hit like I hit any penalty. I made sure he was going the other way, and I closed my body. I just put it in the air. You know, it's probably partially due to tired legs and not concentrating in that moment."
After both teams traded goals, it came down to RSL's Andy Williams with a chance to clinch the victory for his side. Most are familiar with the struggles Williams has faced in his private life, dealing with he's wife's cancer and trying to stay focused on playing soccer. The crowd energy surged as Williams stepped over the ball to take his shot, but instead of being the hero on the night, the Galaxy's Josh Saunders made a great save to send the penalty shoot out into sudden death. Was this MLS Cup ever going to end?
Then, a new hero stepped up, for the seventh Galaxy kick of the contest. Having had a forgettable game to that point, Los Angeles forward Edson Buddle tried his best to prolong the game, but his shot was smartly saved by Rimando. The RSL faithful and converted Sounders fans were at their loudest as Robbie Russell strode to the penalty spot and placed the ball. He took a few steps back, took in a deep breath, and blasted the ball past Saunders. Russell slumped to his knees, knowing that he had secured the first championship of any kind for professional sports in the state of Utah. The rest of the Real Salt Lake team rushed in from the midfield line and swarmed their new hero. The MVP of the game, Nick Rimando, also rushed into the celebration—he had just earned his second straight penalty kick shootout victory in the postseason.
Confetti poured from the Qwest Field cannons creating a snow globe effect inside the stadium as the RSL players celebrated up and down the field. Team captain Kyle Beckerman graciously accepted the MLS Cup from Commissioner Don Garber, before joining his teammates on the acceptance stage. And with all the gusto appropriate for the occasion, Beckerman thrust the Cup high in the air as the team cheered wildly. Real Salt Lake, with more loses than wins in the regular season, were now well-deserved champions of MLS.
• • •
Real Salt Lake (3-0-1) vs. Los Angeles Galaxy (2-1-1)
November 22, 2009 -- Qwest Field
LA -- Mike Magee 2 (Landon Donovan 1, David Beckham 1) 41
RSL -- Robbie Findley 3 (unassisted) 64
LA -- David Beckham (Goal)
RSL -- Clint Mathis (Goal)
LA -- Gregg Berhalter (Goal)
RSL -- Robbie Findley (Goal)
LA -- Jovan Kirovski (Saved)
RSL -- Kyle Beckerman (Saved)
LA -- Landon Donovan (High)
RSL -- Ned Grabavoy (Goal)
LA -- Mike Magee (Goal)
RSL -- Andy Williams (Saved)
LA -- Chris Klein (Goal)
RSL -- Chris Wingert (Goal)
LA -- Edson Buddle (Saved)
RSL -- Robbie Russell (Goal)
Real Salt Lake -- Nick Rimando, Robbie Russell, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, Chris Wingert, Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales (Clint Mathis 22), Will Johnson (Ned Grabavoy 46), Robbie Findley, Yura Movsisyan (Fabian Espindola 75).
Substitutes Not Used: Jean Alexandre, Tony Beltran, Pablo Campos, Chris Seitz
Los Angeles Galaxy -- Donovan Ricketts (Josh Saunders 66), Sean Franklin, Gregg Berhalter, Omar Gonzalez (A.J. DeLaGarza 89), Todd Dunivant, David Beckham, Mike Magee, Chris Birchall (Chris Klein 79), Jovan Kirovski, Edson Buddle, Landon Donovan.
Substitutes Not Used: Alan Gordon, Dema Kovalenko, Eddie Lewis, Yohance Marshall
RSL -- Will Johnson (caution; Tactical Foul) 14
LA -- Chris Birchall (caution; Reckless Tackle) 39
referee: Kevin Stott
Referee's Assistants: C.J. Morgante; Rob Fereday
4th official: Baldomero Toledo
time of game: 2:47
weather: Cloudy -and- 45 degrees