The better team won even if it went to penalty kicks. Qwest Field was jam packed with 46,000 soccer fans and they saw an entertaining final even though the quality was missing at times.
The goalkeepers were central to the game just as they were in the Fire vs RSL and Dynamo vs Galaxy matches a weekend ago. Nicky Rimando played well beyond his small frame once again and was the deserved MVP of the game. When he saved Edson Buddle's effort it was left to Robbie Russell to score the winning penalty past Josh Saunders
RSL's is a Cinderella story. The team with the worst winning percentage in the playoffs and the eighth seed marched on beating the Crew coming from behind two goals down to win 3-2 and then dousing the Fire. They were going to meet the top seeded LA Galaxy with Landon Donovan the MLS player of the year with Edson Buddle, David Beckham, Mike Magee and a revamped defense which went from the most porous to the stingiest in a season with Donovan Ricketts a huge presence in goal. Surely, their luck would run out in the final?
As it turned out, luck had very little to do with their win.
RSL was the better team by not a little but by miles. They enjoyed huge advantages in ball control and chances on goal. Their players were fitter, faster, and scrappier and as the game went on the Galaxy faded especially in the second half. But it all began on a disastrous note as Javier Morales had to leave the game early in the first half with a knee strain sustained in a collision with Beckham. Jason Kries was forced to introduce veteran Clint Mathis and he shouldered the creative burden with Andy Williams, the first player chosen by RSL out of the expansion draft.
RSL seemed a bit spooked with the protean LA attack with Donovan, Beckham, and Magee switching points of attack. In the 41st minute on a fast developing counterattack, Beckham fed a delectable ball to Donovan running down the right and the POY delivered a picture perfect cross right to the footsteps of Mike Magee. The Galaxy held on to finish the first half a goal up.
In the second half, Jason Kries had to make his second substitution with Ned Grabavoy coming for Will Johnson who had not really recovered from a bout of food poisoning last week. RSL began exerting their dominance in midfield moving the ball around with ease as Beckerman, Mathis, and Williams started finding Findley and Movsisyan upfield.
At one stretch the possession stats were 80% in favour of the RSL as the Galaxy were pinned back in their half finding it difficult to effectively clear the ball. In the 49th minute Donovan Ricketts fell down when Findley ran into him. As the goalie lay on the ground writhing in pain it was unclear what the injury was but the replay showed Omar Gonzalez running back to help, sliding onto his right hand in a three way collision.
Ricketts injury would be controversial. Should Ricketts have continued with a hand contusion? It was to prove critical because he hurt himself again falling on his right side fifteen minutes later to stop Robbie Findley from sneaking his equalizer in a goal mouth melee. Bruce Arena could have introduced Josh Saunders, equally effective in goal during Ricketts layoff with injury. Immediately after the goal, Ricketts signaled he was done for the match and he left nursing his hand. Josh Saunders was finally introduced, possibly overdue. For RSL, Kries bought in Fabian Espindola, the overrated Argentinian coming in for Movsisyan. Espindola provided the pirouettes but not the finish.
The Galaxy was able to get some possession back but it was mostly concentrated along the fringes with a lack of a holding presence in center midfield. Beckham by now was telegraphing his corners and his crosses and the RSL defense led by Olave and Nat Borchers dealt with them quite adequately. The match ended with both the teams tied but with RSL definitely on the up and up with Beckerman providing the vital presence in the center that the Galaxy lacked.
Extra time came and went with more of the same from RSL as they kept the attacking pressure up with Findley coming close twice to ending it for the Galaxy with a falling AJ DeLaGarza blocking a shot at the last minute and the other chance finding the side net. Mathis also had a well taken free kick end up in the side net. On the other end Chris Klein's header just went wide of the goal. Just before extra time ended, Mathis feeds the ball to Williams in a perfect place to take a shot but he remains inert and collapses to the ground in exhaustion
It was left to the PKs. And Beckham got the Galaxy off to a perfect start. Mathis provided a fitting response. Berhalter buried his. Findley did the same. Kirovski provided the first sour note when his effort was batted away by Rimando. Beckerman stepped up in great position to give RSL the lead but his shot was saved by Saunders. Then came Donovan who has been perfect in his PKs and he blasts the ball over. Its a huge miss and the Galaxy captain looked bereft.
Ned Grabavoy converts for RSL. Its 4-3. Mike Magee has to make his PK to keep the Galaxy alive and he succeeds. The stage is set for Andy Williams, the ideal man to bring history to the club which he has been part of since its existence. But his exhausted effort runs straight to Saunders for an easy save. Mike Magee's shot is on the money. We are deadlocked. Chris Klein puts his effort in and Chris Wingert answers for RSL. Deadlock again. Edson Buddle bundles his shot down the pipe and Rimando comes up with another save. It is left to Russell and he makes no mistake.
Congratulations to Real Salt Lake, the 2009 MLS champions.