By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009
SEATTLE -- The backdrop was everything that MLS had dreamt, a pulsating setting that evoked visions of soccer's feverish and sophisticated cauldrons in faraway lands.
On a brisk evening in the league's newest outpost, the drama and tension-- if not the quality of play -- served the championship stage admirably. After a 1-1 draw through regulation and overtime, following the traditional five rounds of a penalty kick tiebreaker, Real Salt Lake prevailed in the seventh phase against the Los Angeles Galaxy before 46,011 at Qwest Field.
Nick Rimando, the former D.C. United goalkeeper who sent Real to MLS Cup with three saves during a tiebreaker in the Eastern Conference final at Chicago, stopped Edson Buddle's attempt and then watched teammate Robbie Russell convert against Galaxy backup Josh Saunders for a 5-4 advantage Sunday night.
The match capped a remarkable month for Real, a fifth-year club that had a 11-12-7 record in the regular season and executed a pair of playoff upsets before upending the slightly favored Galaxy, which was bidding for its third title. With the victory, Real provided the state of Utah its first pro title since the Utah Stars in the American Basketball Association 38 years ago.
"Me and all the guys knew if it came down to penalty kicks, we were confident just going back from last week," said Rimando, who won the title with United five years ago. "I really think we could have won this in regulation -- we were that good in the second half and unfortunate not to get a [go-ahead] goal."
Los Angeles, the top seed from the Western Conference after missing the playoffs three consecutive years, went ahead late in the first half when Mike Magee capped an artful sequence created by the glamorous tandem of David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Real was superior in the second half and drew even in the 64th minute on Robbie Findley's goal.
It was the sixth time MLS Cup had gone beyond regulation, the fifth involving the Galaxy.
Beckham, who will rejoin AC Milan on loan this offseason, received three injections to offset pain caused by a bone bruise in his right ankle/foot. "It wore off after about 15 minutes," he said. As the pain returned, Beckham's influence waned.
Hours earlier, showers gave way to sunshine, the first extended period of pleasant weather in days to create a welcoming setting for pregame merriment. Fans began arriving at King Street Station, the transit stop closest to the downtown venue.
In the streets and parking lots, the predominant color was lime green, worn by supporters from the expansion Seattle Sounders, who set league attendance records. Despite their club's elimination from the playoffs two weeks ago, they turned out in force for the first title game to be played at night.
In the tradition of Seattle home matches, thousands of fans representing the Sounders, the finalists and other clubs paraded from Occidental Park to the stadium. They were joined by MLS Commissioner Don Garber and comedian-actor Drew Carey, a Sounders' investor.
"It's a memorable night for soccer in America," Garber said. "The celebration of the sport in this city has been nothing short of spectacular."
The site of MLS Cup has always been designated in advance, and with the exception of Washington in 1997 and New England in 2002, the local club has not progressed to the final. Consequently, many seats are left empty by uninterested local ticket holders. Not the case here.
Perhaps the only negative aspect of playing in Seattle was the artificial turf, which, even on a dry day, sends the ball skipping with unnatural pace. On a damp, fast surface, the game threatened to open up early and provide ample scoring opportunities.
Instead, the first critical moment was an injury to a vital player when, in the 22nd minute, Real playmaker Javier Morales departed with a strained knee ligament. The disappointment of leaving a championship game was too much for Morales, who pulled his jersey over his face to shroud the emotions.
Real seemed lost without its influential midfielder, allowing the Galaxy to find space for the ever-dangerous Donovan. Omar Gonzalez stabbed Beckham's corner kick over the crossbar and Magee wasted a Beckham-Donovan combination by missing the far corner from 10 yards.
Undeterred, the Galaxy shattered the deadlock in the 41st minute. From a central position, Beckham connected with Donovan making a right-side run. Donovan served a high cross through the penalty area to Magee, who tucked a left-footed, four-yard volley into the left corner.
Real had two chances to equalize before the break, but Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts stopped Nat Borchers's header and Yura Movsisyan's 12-yarder in tight space streaked high.
"The first half was almost exactly like I was hoping it wouldn't be," said Real Coach Jason Kreis, who became the fourth former MLS player to win the championship as a coach. "We didn't settle down as nicely as I would have liked us to and didn't possess the ball as nicely as I would have liked us to. But in the second half, we did a much better job, and we deserved to win that game."
Before the second half began, however, Real had to spend a second substitution, replacing midfielder Will Johnson, who contracted food poisoning Saturday night.
Real mounted increasing pressure and, after squandering a quality chance in which Ricketts injured his right hand in a sliding collision, the equalizer came off a fortuitous deflection. Actually, two deflections off Movsisyan's shot. The ball dropped to Findley, who hooked a six-yarder into the far side.
"The ball was just bouncing around," he said. "It fell by my foot."
As Real celebrated, Ricketts realized he couldn't continue and was replaced by Saunders -- the first goalkeeper substitution in MLS Cup history. Saunders had not appeared in a league match since a five-minute stint in mid-August. Five minutes after entering, Movsisyan bore down on him before firing high.
Both clubs turned to the bench in the late stage, Fabian Espindola for Movsisyan and Chris Klein for Chris Birchall in midfield. Rimando blocked Buddle's acute-angled bid, a diving Saunders punched away Findley's cross and Gonzalez was replaced by fellow Maryland Terrapin A.J. DeLaGarza. An astounding seven minutes were added to regulation, primarily because of time lost to Ricketts' initial treatment.
Findley had two opportunities in the first 15 minutes of overtime, but DeLaGarza blocked a bid deep in the box and he whistled a shot fractionally wide of the right post.
In the tiebreaker, after each team was perfect through two rounds, Rimando went to his right to thwart Jovan Kirovski's bid and Saunders did the same against captain Kyle Beckerman. Donovan then missed high and reserve Ned Grabavoy scored to put Real on the brink of the championship.
Donovan, the league MVP and U.S. national team's all-time leading scorer, had been successful on 21 of 23 penalty kicks in his MLS career. Rimando and Jeff Cassar, Real's goalkeeping coach, are the only ones to ever save a Donovan penalty kick.
This time, while Rimando surged to his left, Donovan took aim at the top center of the net ¿ and missed high.
"I just put it in the air," he said. "It's probably partially due to tired legs and not concentrating in that moment."
After Mike Magee scored for the Galaxy, Andy Williams failed to secure the victory as Saunders blocked his poorly struck shot. Chris Klein and Chris Wingert converted in the sixth round before Rimando dived to his left to deny Buddle and Russell placed his shot in the opposite direction of Saunders to trigger Real's confetti-sprinkled celebration.
Players "are just dealing with the pressure and putting it away," said Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, who was seeking his third MLS title after winning a pair with United in 1996-97. "At the end of 120 minutes, it's tough on players; they're tired. Both goalkeepers were great. They both saved two ¿ that's pretty remarkable."