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Recognize the Real-ness!
Usually they end up falling at the last crucial hurdle.
But somehow, some way Real Salt Lake, the decided underdogs in MLS Cup ’09 lived up to their self-proclaimed title and pulled one of the great upsets in MLS Cup history, beating the LA Galaxy 5-4 on penalties after the teams drew 1-1.
The victory, in front of 46,000 plus fans who provided one of the great MLS Cup atmospheres, gave Utah its first professional sports title and the league its second consecutive new champion following last year’s win by Columbus.
By all accounts this was match that was there for the taking by the Galaxy. They completed a worst to first transformation amid crazy amounts of behind the scenes, soap opera level drama since the arrival of David Beckham.
Everything seemed to clicking for the team since Becks returned from his AC Milan loan spell. With the consistent brilliance of Landon “The Truth” Donovan and the solid veterans and impressive young players playing behind them, this looked to be a shoo-in for LA.
Yet, as coach Jason Kreis said, RSL believed in themselves as much as everyone else did not and in the end, belief carried the day.
The atmosphere was definitely worthy of a Cup final as the two teams lined up for the opening kickoff and that intensity was matched in the early going as both teams gave maximum effort to try and impose their will on the match.
Passes were just a little off and defenses on both sides were quick to pounce on any mistake. The first half chance came to RSL’s Robbie Findley seven minutes in who had his run stopped by LA’s Greg Berhalter after Jamaican International Andy Williams fed captain Kyle Beckerman who set Findley on his way.
LA had it’s first chance two minutes later when after several passes Todd Dunivant got around Williams and centered to Edson Buddle who headed wide left.
The first major point of the game 17′ in when a hard but seemingly fair tackle on Javiar Morales by Beckham left the influential RSL midfielder on the ground clutching his knee.
He tried to soldier on but was unable to continue and tearfully exited the scene in favor of Clint Mathis four minutes later.
While both defenses remained resolute, LA started pressing for a goal. On 25 minutes, Jovan Kirovski laid a shot from about 18 yards out into the hands of a well placed Nick Rimando.
MLS Rookie of the Year Omar Gonzalez headed a Beckham corner over the net three minutes later. Though Williams give LA warning by blazing a shot just wide left after a 32nd minute throw in, LA came back four minutes later with a well constructed counter attack.
Buddle started it by playing Donovan on the left side who in turn found Mike Magee streaking into the box. Magee’s shot flashed across the goal mouth and wide right, just out of the reach of Buddle.
Magee would get a chance to make up for his miss and this time he took it. Beckham picked up the ball at about midfield and drove forward towards the box on what looked like a 3 on 1 fast break.
He played LD into the box on the right who in turn one touched a perfect cross past 3 retreating RSL defenders to a wide open Magee. Magee was left with a simple left footed tap in just inside the left post and LA had the lead, just four minutes from the break.
Magee puts LA ahead (Reuters)
It was a well executed break out featuring combinations of the team’s two biggest stars and one of their lesser known lights who was the beneficiary. With Morales out and LA getting the breakthrough, they looked firmly in command.
Williams tried to give RSL a chance to get back at the stroke of half time, floating a well placed free kick into the box but Nat Borchers was unable to get much on his header and it was a comfortable save for Jamaican Donovan Ricketts in goal.
Yura Movsysian blazed a shot over Ricketts’ goal a minute into stoppage time but LA had to feel comfortable going into the break up a goal and momentum in their corner.
It only took about three minutes for the intensity of the match to reintroduce itself to the proceedings. Movsysian played a clever flick to Findley who beat the off sides trap on the right and sprinted towards goal.
A heavy touch once he was into the area took the ball too far in front of him and an alert Ricketts sprinted out to pounce. A retreating Gonzalez, Ricketts and Findley all came together at the same time causing a mighty collision.
Findley and Ricketts stayed down and the Jamaican was was the worse off, having his hand bruised by Gonzalez. This would become an issue later in the half.
The next several minutes were underscored by total commitment from both sides and hard tackles galore. Heavy collisions were the norm, highlighted by RSL’s Chris Wingert coming in hard and heavy on Beckham and LA’s Sean Franklin.
In 60th minute RSL had a legitimate penalty shout. Beckerman played in a brilliant through ball to RSL right back Robbie Russell. He one timed a pass from the right side of the box to an on coming Movasysian.
He was tackled from behind Chris Birchall who didn’t appear to get any part of the ball but a whole lot of Movsysian. The ball was deflected to Russell whose shot was saved point blank by Ricketts and cleared. LA’s reprieve was brief.
Four minutes later, Beckerman played another smart ball forward to Findley.
Findley carried the ball right left inside the box but had his intended pass to Movsysian poked away. Movsysian retrieved it on the left and let fly but his shot was blocked. The deflection fell to Findley and the young American buried the chance with his left foot between Ricketts and the upright. 1-1.
Findley (r) and Movasysian celebrate (AP)
Findley has enjoyed a stellar season with RSL scoring 12 times and seeing his name mentioned in the same sentence as the US National Team. To score in MLS Cup against the team that traded him two seasons ago and equalize for his team had to be the most satisfying of them all.
Ricketts, for his part, was done. Falling on his injured hand while trying to make the save rendered him unable to move it. Camera shots revealed the amount swelling and on 66 minutes he was replaced by reliable backup Josh Saunders.
LA tried to regain the lead a minute later. Buddle played a ball to Beckham along the sideline. The English icon flipped a ball over his head and that of a defender into the path of Kirovski into the area but he shot was blocked. RSL was far from done however.
Beckerman brilliantly won the ball from an LA attacker, fed Mathis in the circle whose single flick freed Ned Grabavoy who then fed Movsysian. Movsysian’s 71st minute shot blazed high over the ball. LD followed that up with a miss of his own, wide right after being teed up by Buddle.
Movsysian departed in favor of Fabian Espindola as RSL looked to press the offense for a game winner. RSL was second in the league in terms of goal scoring and it was about this time they started taking the match to their more accomplished opponents.
They dominated possession and though Buddle was able force Rimando into a near post save on 83 minutes, the Galaxy, especially LD, were quiet throughout the remainder of regulation. In fact it was RSL who had the last real chance before overtime with Williams slotting a through ball to Espindola who struck the side netting.
Overtime saw two tired teams renewing their commitment to the cause but with RSL again dominating possession. Their quick ball movement and one touch passing kept LA off balance.
Perhaps the absence of an ill Dema Kovalenko was a factor but RSL clearly had it working. On 93 minutes, Espindola set up Grabavoy whose blocked shot fell to Findley. Before the American could settle it, the chance was brilliantly erased by AJ De La Garza.
Beckerman, playing with ever increasing confidence on the ball, Williams and Mathis combined brilliantly to set up Findley on the right side but his shot struck the side net at the 98 minute mark.
Mathis struck a free kick into the same side netting. However neither side had a legit opportunity thereafter on goal and as the final whistle sounded, everyone geared up for the penalty kicks that would decide this year’s champion.
Beckham, Mathis, Berhalter and Findley all converted but the keepers traded saves in the next round, Rimando saving form Kirovski diving to his right and Saunders making a brilliant save on Beckerman in the same direction.
RSL seized the advantage with LD pulled a Roberto Baggio and skied his penalty into Row Q and Grabavoy converted. Magee converted for LA but Williams, with the Cup on his right foot, was unable to beat Saunders to his left and LA was still alive.
Nick Rimando=Stonewall ( Harry How/Getty Images)
Second half substitute Chris Klein and Wingert both converted but Buddle was stoned by Cup MVP Rimando to his left leaving it for Robbie Russell. Russell picked his spot and tucked his penalty just inside the left upright.
He sank to his knees pumping his fists as a tidal wave of RSL players and support staff engulfed him. RSL had claimed the Battle for Seattle.
Russell celebrates (AP)
I’ll admit to being one of those who picked against in RSL in this match. But there was no denying that they deserved this title. After getting the equalizer they simply played the Galaxy right off the field, dominating the midfield and growing in confidence as the half and overtime wore on.
In what should have been a storybook ending to LA’s one season resurgence they were simply second best on a night that could not have been scripted any better by a proud, resolute, RSL team who future looks bright with a new stadium and no other sports to divert attention away during major stretches of its season.
Unlikely but deserving champs: RSL (Getty)
Yes, Salt Lake is for Real.