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MLS Cup ’09-The Battle for Seattle is Set
MIAMI- MLS Cup is upon us and for the second straight year a team most fans feel have absolutely no business playing for a title has found itself in the MLS Cup against one of the league’s top sides.
Real Salt Lake, a team that entered the league in 2005 and barely scraped into the playoffs on the final matchday of the season, has dragged itself to MLS Cup ’09 (Sunday, ESPN 8:30 EST) by pulling off two stunning upsets in the first two rounds of the MLS Playoffs. Their opponents will be the evolving soap opera that is the two-time MLS Cup Champions, LA Galaxy.
RSL spent the majority of the MLS regular season hovering around the eighth and final playoff spot. Finishing the season with a losing record, it took a 3-0 win on the final match day against their Rocky Mountain rivals, the Colorado Rapids to earn a spot in the post-season.
Matched up against the defending champion Columbus Crew who once again entered the playoffs having won the Supporter’s Shield for league’s best record, RSL was picked to go quietly into the night. However in the opening leg of the first round, Crew coach Robert Warzycha inexplicably left last season’s MVP, Guillermo Barros-Schelotto on the bench.
While Columbus was struggling to score in the waning weeks of the season, leaving GBS on the bench wasn’t exactly the most enlightened way to revive the offense. Robbie Findley, whose play this year has inspired talk of a possible call-up to the United States National Team, scored in the 88th minute giving RSL a 1-0 aggregate lead heading into the second leg.
Robbie Findley: Is a US Call up in the RSL forward’s future? (theoffside)
Back in Columbus, GBS answered any questions as to whether he should have been on the field in Salt Lake by scoring twice in the first 35 minutes to seemingly restore order and give Columbus a 2-0 lead on the night.
But RSL simply refused to fold. Javier Morales took advantage of a defensive error to cut the lead to 2-1, then Findley scored a penalty when Fabian Espinola was hauled down in the area, tying the match and giving RSL the lead on aggregate.
RSL finished Columbus off thanks to Jamaican international Andy Williams’ 74th minute goal and for the second straight year, a team that barely qualified for the playoffs had knocked off the defending champions. The curse of the Supporter’s Shield which took a year’s vacation in 2008 was back in full effect.
RSL then went to Chicago to face the Fire coached by MLS’ only Black coach Dennis Hamlett. The Fire were heavy favorites going into the match and certainly had their chances with Brian McBride hitting the cross bar in the 27th minute and Marco Poppa brilliantly denied by RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando in the 67th. Findley almost sent RSL through in the dying minutes but saw his shot cleared off the line and the game went into overtime.
30 minutes of additional soccer could not settle it and the match went to penalites. Rimando was a stonewall during the penalty shootout, saving three straight kicks to send RSL through to an improbable MLS Cup berth and possibly costing Hamlett his job.
Meanwhile, LA started off the regular season in turmoil. The team was coming off consecutive losing seasons, hadn’t seen the playoffs since they won the Cup in 2005 and David Beckham was still in Milan. They drew 9 of their first 11 matches early in the season.
Then Grant Wuhl’s “The Beckham Experiment” was released. The book detailed the near disastrous behind the scene operations of the team and featured a scathing assessment of Beckham as a teammate by none other than MLS MVP Landon Donovan (AKA The Truth).
The timing of the release, right before Beckham’s return to LA, threatened to derail LA’s slowly improving momentum. But LA coach, Bruce Arena arranged a sit down between his two stars and the team seemingly never looked back.
The Truth and Beckham: Come Together (ksl.com)
Signficiantly improved on defense and featuring veteran players around the tandem of Beckham and The Truth, the Galaxy caught fire after Beck’s return and finished with the best record in the west.
Drawing their cross-hall rivals Chivas USA, they drew first leg of their playoff series 2-2 in a match that featured 3 defensive errors but dominated the second leg and won 1-0 when LD converted a 73rd penalty won by Alan Gordon.
LA then faced off against perrineal power Houston Dynamo in one of the most anticipated conference finals in a long time. Though the game didn’t live up to the hype in terms of quality it was certainly dramatic enough with big time saves by Jamaican International Donovan Ricketts, a Houston goal disallowed for a foul off the ball and the two area power outages that killed the lights in the stadium (probably the most lasting memory of this match).
Both sides remained scoreless through 90 minutes of regulation and on into overtime until Greg Berhalter scored in the 102nd minute off a David Beckham free kick and an Omar Gonzalez header. The Truth finished Houston off by converting a 109th minute penalty drawn by Alan Gordon from Houston’s Ricardo Clark. With that, LA was headed to Seattle for MLS’ Showcase Showdown.
From Montego Bay to LA: Goal keeper Donovan Ricketts
Given the impact abiity of The Truth and Becks, both of whom are usually big game players, a more experienced coach on the sideline in Bruce Arena and LA’s better overall squad, there no reason they should leave Seattle on Sunday without claiming their 3rd MLS Cup.
Yes, RSL has shown that they won’t roll over for anyone despite the fact they probably shouldn’t be there. A team with a sub .500 regular season winning percentage coming into the playoffs, they’ve simply crashed the party and thrown the more popular guys out.
Moreover, MLS Cup finals are rarely blowouts. Only four have been decided by two goals or more. RBNY, last year’s last place Cinderella, gave Columbus a hard fought match in MLS Cup ’08. Then again, they were one of the few to lose by a multiple goal margin.
RSL are going to have to outwork LA to have a chance at pulling the upset but there’s no one on the that team that’s a difference maker for a big time match such as this. LA’s the more experienced and better overall team so count on the Galaxy to bring home Los Angeles’ second title in the calender year.
Other MLS News
Zach is back
The Renaissance of Zach Thornton culminated with the big man from Chivas USA after being named MLS’ Goal Keeper of the Year for 2009 (matching his award in 1998 as a member of the Chicago Fire) as well as Comeback Player of the Year…
Jeff Cunningham of FC Dallas won MLS’ Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer and earned a call up the US National Team where he scored his first international goal against Denmark in a Wednesday night friendly. Thornton and Cunningham both joined Grenada’s Shalrie Joseph on 2009 MLS’ Best XI.
Zach Thornton: Don’t Call it a Comeback … or maybe you can (chivas.usa.mlsnet.com)
MLS Recognized for Front Office Diversity
Major League Soccer was once again recognized for its diversity initiatives and overall racial hiring practices, receiving its third consecutive overall A from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
Major League Soccer has maintained an outstanding record on racial hiring practices and has continued to improve in gender hiring,” according to Richard Lapchick, the study’s author. Commissioner Garber’s headquarters team continues to lead by example. MLS consistently has among the best diversity initiatives in sport.”
Check out MLS’ summary of the report here
One Last Thing
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