Real Salt Lake Crashes MLS Cup Party
For those who think the MLS Cup playoffs are too brief, the four teams involved in this weekend's semifinals (along with Southern California Edison) did their best to draw them out as long as possible.
A few hours after the Los Angeles Galaxy outlasted Houston in an epic overtime game that felt like a best-of-7 series thanks to two blackouts, Real Salt Lake eliminated the Chicago Fire on Saturday night in a sudden-death penalty shootout that followed a 0-0 tie. RSL became the third eighth seed to advance to the title game and will meet the Galaxy next Sunday in Seattle in one of the unlikeliest championship pairings in the league's 14-year history.
The Galaxy's climb from worst to first and their rebound from the locker room drama that followed David Beckham's arrival and his subsequent feud with Landon Donovan are well documented. RSL attracted far less attention, lumbering along at a .500 pace and making the playoffs with a losing record only after D.C. United blew a stoppage-time lead in Kansas City on the final weekend of the regular season.
But Salt Lake upset the top-seeded Columbus Crew in the quarterfinals and clearly entered Saturday's Eastern Conference Final in Chicago full of confidence. Despite winning only two road games during the regular season, RSL demonstrated an interest in attacking from kickoff at Toyota Park. With Javier Morales assertively pulling the strings in midfield, RSL didn't look like a team that was just happy to be there.
But Chicago's defense held firm, and Brian McBride nearly gave the hosts the advantage when his header hit the crossbar in the 27th minute. The sides traded chances and a few body blows over the next 90-plus minutes, with Fire playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco largely neutralized in what may be his final game in MLS and Salt Lake strikers Yura Movsisyan and Robbie Findley showing flashes of danger but failing to capitalize.
It was heading to penalties scoreless, and the league's dream final featuring Beckham vs. Blanco hung in the balance. They say shootouts are a lottery, but RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said he doesn't see it that way. He was in goal when D.C. United beat New England in the famous 2004 semifinal at RFK Stadium and saved spot kicks from Jay Heaps and Clint Dempsey.
"I was in this position before and I felt comfortable," he told Fox Soccer Channel, adding that he has a system for saving penalty kicks. "I can't tell that or else next time I go to PKs there will be trouble. But there's something that I stick to."
It worked. The first five rounds finished 4-4 after Morales shot high and Rimando made a diving save on John Thorrington. In sudden death, Rimando denied two more Fire players, leaping to his left to snuff out efforts from Logan Pause and Brandon Prideaux. In the seventh round, RSL reserve midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who grew up near Chicago, sent the underdogs to Seattle with a high shot that Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch put a hand to but could not keep out.
"He's a beast at PKs," RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said of Rimando.
Now Rimando will go for his second MLS title in a final that, on the surface, may be hard to sell. It's not two big markets. There's no Blanco or McBride and no Fire tradition, just a week of trying to explain to people how a four-year-old soccer team from Utah that's pretending to be patronized by the Spanish king is playing for a league championship despite having a losing regular-season record (11-12-7). These are questions worth asking.
But it shouldn't detract from the work that GM Garth Lagerwey and coach Jason Kreis have done in putting together a side that does play good soccer, even if it's not always winning soccer, and has players in Morales, Beckerman, Findley, Movsisyan and others that really are worth watching. Whether they can handle Landon Donovan and Beckham is another story, but RSL's performance in a very hostile Chicago environment on Saturday was courageous and one worth celebrating.