Real Salt Lake spot on as Galaxy miss out on MLS Cup

It was supposed to be written in the stars above the Space Needle. Sunday was the night everything was to come together and confirm the resurrection of a fallen giant. MLS Cup 2009 had an air of destiny; LA Galaxy, guided by the reinvigorated Beckham-Donovan axis, were to confirm their return from too long in the wilderness to triumph against all the odds.

Under Bruce Arena, the Galaxy were transformed from the worst team in the Western Conference in 2008 into the best – and Western champions – in 2009. He did so in the face of adversity, laughing off David Beckham’s controversial return and setting up a showpiece final in which LA were not ony favourite, but carried with them the filmic stench of inevitability.

And yet during the cup final festivities in the Emerald City between Thursday and Sunday, Arena would have been all too aware that a similar story was developing for Real Salt Lake. In Major League Soccer, there’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion.

The boys from Utah were gunning for some fairytale records of their own in Seattle on Sunday. Head coach Jason Kreis would become the league’s youngest victorious boss if Salt Lake took their first MLS title. And, having qualified for the playoffs as the eighth seed on the final weekend, his side would be the first team to win MLS Cup after posting a losing record (that’s sub-.500 to you and I) in the regular season.

In front of 46,000 people at a noisy Qwest Field on Sunday evening, two destinies collided. Of course, it went all the way – and it was Salt Lake skipper Kyle Beckerman who held MLS Cup aloft after a dramatic penalty shoot out.

LA take the initiative

Emerging from a storm of expectation, the team news on Sunday evening was unspectacular. Real Salt Lake remained unchanged from the side which had clinched the Eastern Conference title in the name of the West the weekend before. Beckham, who hadn’t trained until Friday, played through the pain of a foot injury – but he started on the right wing with Landon Donovan on the left. Chris Birchall and Jovan Kirovski started in the middle, while Dema Kovalenko had succumbed to illness.

The first ever MLS Cup to be played on turf got underway in the manner in which it would continue for much of the evening. It was a touch scrappy but Salt Lake played a patient passing game against the more urgent approach of the Galaxy.

Goalmouth drama, however, had to wait. In the 22nd minute it was a sad moment which created the first talking point. RSL midfielder Javier Morales had earlier been fouled rather aggressively by Beckham and, having tried to continue, eventually accepted his fate. He was replaced by Clint Mathis and left the field in tears.

On the pitch, Robbie Findley played on the shoulder of the last defender and was repeatedly foiled by LA’s offside trap. His pace took him past Gregg Berhalter in the 27th minute but the experienced defender jockeyed him out of play.

And from there, LA began their most productive spell of the match. Salt Lake’s play became predictable as tidy horizontal passing was invariably followed by a long ball into the channels, but the Galaxy were beginning to carve out some opportunities. Omar Gonzalez and Mike Magee missed the target either side of a shot by RSL’s Andy Williams, and Donovan hit a wild volley wide from an acute angle.

Three minutes later Donovan turned provider in a similar position and it paid dividends. Receiving the ball in his stride from Beckham, Donovan considered another shot but chose instead to send over an inch-perfect cross for Magee to finish at the far post. All Magee had to do was keep his cool and take care over his technique and he did so with flying colours to give LA Galaxy a 1-0 half time lead. It was deserved in the sense that the Galaxy found the better openings, but Salt Lake were controlling large parts of the pitch.

Fortune favours the brave

Kreis was forced into a second unplanned substitution at half time. Will Johnson started despite a recent bout of food poisoning and he had to be replaced by Eastern final penalty hero Ned Grabavoy. The change gave RSL more energy but they continued to have little in the way of an attacking threat in the early minutes of the second half.

LA would soon have to make an emergency change of their own. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts hurt his hand in a 47th minute collision with Gonzalez and was grateful to have almost nothing to do for the next ten minutes. But then, RSL had a great spell of possession and had a penalty shout turned down on the hour. Birchall was lucky his clumsy tackle went unpunished but in truth a penalty would have been harsh.

Salt Lake finally broke through after 64 minutes. The ball ricocheted around the area during a goalmouth scramble and, with Yura Movsisyan helping him wreak havoc, Findley found the ball conveniently at his feet and stroked home the equaliser.

Ricketts was stranded, but in any case he was unable to use his injured right hand. Josh Saunders replaced him after the goal and Ricketts became the first goalkeeper ever substituted in an MLS Cup final. Saunders did Arena proud with a fine performance.

Both sides had a few chances to win it in normal time but were unable to convert. The Galaxy’s offside trap continued to frustrate Findley and Kreis responded by gambling on his last substitute, introducing Fabian Espindola to help unlock the Galaxy defence. He replaced Movsisyan, signalling the end of his MLS career. He’ll be in Europe with Denmark’s Randers FC in the new year.

The cruellest tie-breaker

A penalty shoot-out is no way to lose a cup final, but after an end-to-end but uneventful extra 30 minutes that was the fate facing one of these two teams.

LA went first and the first four spot kicks found the net. For the Galaxy, Beckham hit the bottom left corner and Berhalter went wide left of Nick Rimando to score. Mathis and Findley went for power, Findley’s finish into the top left corner making it 2-2.

Not so fortunate was Kirovski, who found Rimando blocking his shot’s path into the bottom left hand corner. RSL skipper Beckerman suffered an identical misery but was redeemed when his opposite number blasted over with the next kick. Donovan’s awful penalty gave Grabavoy the chance to make it 3-2 with a powerful shot into the top corner.

Magee’s must-score kick found the net but Williams, spent from his exertions after 120 minutes, couldn’t score the winner. Chris Klein and Chris Wingert held their nerve to make it 4-4 after the first round of sudden death, coolly finishing into the bottom corners.

And so it fell to Galaxy striker Edson Buddle, staring down Rimando and preparing to take the most important kick of his career. But Rimando, as he was against Chicago in RSL’s last game, was equal to it, diving low to his left to claw away a poor penalty and put Salt Lake’s fortunes in the hands of Robbie Russell. He made no mistake, and Real Salt Lake were crowned MLS Cup Champions 2009 on the back of a 5-4 victory from 12 yards.

Donovan may be the league’s MVP for 2009, but Rimando and Beckerman won’t be envious. Rimando picked up the MVP award for the match in Seattle on Sunday and Beckerman was visibly ecstatic when he stooped low on the platform with the Cup in his hand and then raised it to the sky to salute RSL’s first Major League Soccer triumph.

The fourteenth Major League Soccer season is over and we have a new champion. But for MLS, the off-season battle is just as vital and pits it against its own players. The upcoming collective bargaining agreement renewal has caused a dispute and striking has been threatened. FIFPro has vowed to get involved on the players’ behalf and, while FIFA’s initial response refused to condemn MLS, we’re set for a dramatic close season.

Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts the twofootedtackle Podcast.

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