As Major League Soccer goes, it was an underdog story all the way. In the MLS Cup Final it was the LA Galaxy versus REAL Salt Lake. The fabled David Beckham and Landon Donovan were playing for the LA Galaxy soccer club, by far the favorite over captain Kyle Beckerman and his REAL Salt Lake team. RSL was the last club to make the MLS playoffs, and had arguably not been as strong during the regular season as previous years. But soccer basically has two seasons: regular and playoffs. And it is in post-season play that underdogs can turn out to be a serious threat. In 2009 RSL proved that to be the case.
The final against LA did not start well for Salt Lake. They were strong, but after Beckham fouled star RSL player Javier Morales (who was sent to the bench with an injured left leg as a result) things looked a little shaky for REAL. Morales was heart-broken, and his injury kept him from ever returning to the match. The Galaxy then went on to score with Donovan and Beckham setting up Magee for a point right before the half, making it 1-0 in LA’s favor as the teams headed to the locker room.
But the tide shifted slightly when, not long into the second half, there was a three-way collision between RSL’s Findley, and the Galaxy’s Gonzalez and Ricketts (goalkeeper). In the collision, Gonzalez’s cleated foot appeared to slam into his own keeper’s right hand, and Ricketts sustained a serious contusion on his 4th and 5th fingers. Ricketts stayed in the game, but shortly thereafter Findley attacked and got one past Ricketts on a pass from RSL teammate Yura Movsisyan (who unfortunately has now played his last match for RSL and will be moving to Europe to play in Denmark). This tied up the game and breathed that underdog life into the REAL team. Ricketts left the game and was replaced by rookie keeper for the Galaxy, Josh Saunders, who immediately surprised everyone with some great saves and poise for such a big game with high consequences.
The score remained tied 1-1 for the remainder of regular play (the full 90 minutes plus 7 minutes of stoppage time). It then went into two 15 minute sessions of overtime. But even after the 30 minutes of extra play it remained tied, with all players absolutely exhausted – especially RSL star Andy Williams, whose aggressiveness is always surprising. Both LA and Salt Lake had used all their substitutions, and seeing Andy and others lag told the entire tale of how taxing this long and hard-fought final had been on both teams. The championship would be decided by penalty kicks.
At the end of 5 PKs, the teams were even at 3 each. But when it came time for LA’s Edson Buddle to face RSL’s star goalkeeper Nick Rimando, in this author’s opinion it was obvious that Buddle wished he were ANYWHERE but on the field at that moment. The results showed it. Rimando owned Buddle’s attempt, leaving RSL’s Robbie Russell a chance to win the cup for Salt Lake. Robbie had started in the final to replace the fluid and tenacious Tony Beltran, who suffered a quadricep injury in the semis. Russell promptly stepped up to the PK and buried it in the lower-left corner past Saunders. The deed was done – the REAL Salt Lake club had won the MLS Championship for the first time in the franchise’s history!
This Salt Lake “brotherhood of a team” is the real star here, and coach Jason Kreis is now the youngest coach to ever have won the cup. Here’s to RSL’s captain Kyle Beckerman, MVP goalkeeper Nick Rimando, Robbie Findley, Robbie Russell, and all the rest of the RSL team! Thank you for bringing the MLS Cup to Salt Lake!