Real Salt Lake earned an unlikely crown Sunday. The lowest-ranked team in the Major League Soccer playoffs defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy on penalty kicks, 5-4, after the teams dueled to a 1-1 stalemate to win the MLS Cup before a crowd of 46,011 at Qwest Field.
MLS CUP: REAL SALT LAKE 5, L.A. GALAXY 4 (penalty kicks)
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It was the first trophy won by the club that was formed in the expansion of 2005. And it came after a losing regular season (11-12-7) in which RSL won only twice away from home.
Yet in the playoffs, Real advanced with road wins at Columbus and Chicago. And then it clinched the championship on a neutral pitch when defender Robbie Russell scored in the seventh round of penalty kicks.
“What we saw this year at certain points in the season, in certain games, we saw what we were capable of,” RSL coach Jason Kreis said. “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.”
The two-time champion Galaxy entered the playoffs as the Western Conference’s top seed. In the final, L.A. scored first in regulation, and didn’t fall behind in penalty kicks until the game’s dramatic highpoint: MLS most valuable player Landon Donovan taking what might be his final kick in MLS and driving it high over the crossbar.
“The penalty kick I hit like any penalty kick,” Donovan said. “I made sure (Salt Lake keeper Nick Rimando) was going the other way, and I closed my body – I just put it in the air. You know, it’s probably due to tired legs and not concentrating in that moment.”
Until then, Donovan had scored on 19 of 21 penalty kicks in his nine-season MLS career. And since both of his previous misses came on saves, this represented the first time that he failed to put a penalty kick on goal.
But while the miss was dramatic, it wasn’t decisive. In the fifth frame, L.A. reserve keeper Josh Saunders stopped what would have been the game-winner from RSL’s Andy Williams.
Two rounds later, Rimando saved a shot by Edson Buddle.
That sent Robbie Russell to the spot with a chance to win it, and he put it away, fell to his knees and was swarmed by his teammates.
“If it came down to penalty kicks we were confident going back from last week (when) we handled business in Chicago,” said RSL keeper Rimando, who was voted most valuable player of the MLS Cup. “But I really think we could have won this in regulation, we were that good in the second half.”
The Galaxy had taken a 1-0 lead in the 41st minute as David Beckham – who booed on every corner kick – passed to Donovan who carried into the area, and then slid the ball left to Mike Magee, who finished easily.
Salt Lake pulled even in the 64th minute, when Robbie Findley scored after the ricocheting ball landed at his feet in front of the L.A. goal. In that scramble, Galaxy keeper Donovan Ricketts suffered a right-hand injury and left the game. He became the first goalkeeper to be substituted for in an MLS Cup final.
“One of the difficulties both teams had there was the substitution pattern,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “Certainly, in our case, having to use one substitution for a goalkeeper is never good.”
RSL also had to go to its bench early, substituting twice in the first half due to injury and illness.
However, Real appeared to be the far fresher team in the second half and had the best chances to win it without going to P Ks.
Despite the defeat, the game’s setting had special meaning for Arena, who played with a short-lived pro team in Tacoma and got his coaching start at the University of Puget Sound.
“Professional soccer never should have left Seattle,” he said. “I think the Pacific Northwest is a fabulous geographic area for professional soccer. ... I’m happy it’s back. They really embraced the season and the team, and it’s a fantastic story for MLS.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808
SALT LAKE TITLES
Teams from Salt Lake City that have won national titles:
Real Salt LakeMLS1
Utah StarsABA1 SOCCER KINGS
Teams that have won the MLS Cup:
Los Angeles Galaxy2
San Jose Earthquakes2
Kansas City Wizards1
Real Salt Lake1