Monday, November 23, 2009

Thoughts on the MLS Cup Final

Hats off to Real Salt Lake, the team that qualified dead last for the playoffs, on the last day of the season grabbed their first MLS cup in their five year franchise history, capping off an emotional month of play for RSL. They played like champions last night and deserved to win.

Jason Kreis' boys did a remarkable thing in the past month:

October 24, 2009. Last day of the regular season for RSL, needing to win over Colorado and get a little help to get into the playoffs and they did it.

October 31 and November 5. As the eighth team in the Playoffs, RSL was drawn against the Columbus Crew--arguably the single most consistent team in the league for the past two years, the two time Supporter's Sheild winners, a team that was largely the same from their MLS Cup win in 2008. RSL not only beat Columbus at the Rio Tinto, they went into Crew stadium, went down two goals in the first half and then rallied with three unanswered to knock off the defending champs. RSL played the way Jason Kreis wanted them to and they won--deservedly so.

November 14. RSL, still the underdogs go to Toyota Park to meet the team that most people favored to make it to the MLS Cup--the Chicago Fire. True, the Fire sucked at home this year and RSL were absolutely atrocious on the road (the win against Columbus notwithstanding). But in 120 minutes of soccer, neither team could score. The two smallest keepers in the league, Nick Rimando for RSL and Jon Busch for the Fire kept both teams in the game with some outstanding saves. Chicago boasts two of the most experienced veterans in teh league, Cuahtemoc Blanco and Brian McBride and despite chances neither found the net. In the penalty kicks, the little guy Rimando was absolutely thrilling, saving three penalties before last minute substitute Ned Grabavoy blasted his penalty in past Busch who had gotten his hand on the shot. RSL, the 8th seeded team goes to Seattle for the Final.

Aside from a shocking 18 or so minutes at the end of the first half, RSL was on top in this game. When Bruce Arena shifted Landon Donovan more up top, the RSL back line was slow to shift and the Galaxy made them pay with an outstanding goal by Mike Magee assisted by Donovan and David Beckham.

Unfortuneately, someone forgot to tell Donovan and Beckham that there was another 50 minutes to play the game because after that goal, both key figures were absolutely MIA for the rest of the game. It was by far, the worst I have seen Donovan play in a couple of years--he just didn't figure into this game at all after the first half. Beckham, who was admittedly injured, did his best, but in this case, his injured best was not enough. It was, ironically, the L.A. Galaxy back line of Todd Dunivent, Greg Berhalter, Omar Gonzales and Sean Franklin that kept L.A. in the game. Despite the speed of Robbie Findlay and Yura Movsisyan, the back line was prepared, well-positioned and very well-disciplined agaisnt the RSL attack. Were it not for a broken play and scramble, I don't think RSL would have scored. When Gonzalez left the game injured, his Maryland teammate and roommate A.J. De La Garza came in and made some big plays. For a team that last year shipped more goals than any other team in the league, L.A.'s back line proved to be the line that kept L.A. alive.

A great big hats off to Josh Saunders. L.A.'s starting keeper, the big Jamaican international Donovan Ricketts actually broke his hand in a collision with Omar Gonzalez, played for about 15 minutes and then left immediately after the goal by RSL. Saunders comes into a pressure situation and makes a series of great plays and saves to keep the Galaxy in the game. At teh end of penalties, after saving two shots, Saunders looked devasted, but it was not his fault in the least. He did exactly what back up goalkeepers do, come into the match and kept his team in the game. Nothing more can be expected.

But RSL, man what a team this year. A team that has the lowest payroll in the league, whose only real stars would be Findlay, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, this squad of no-names, coached by 37 year old former player in Jason Kries, played their game and played it well. For large stretches of the game, they controlled possession, dictated the pace and smoothered the L.A. stars. Despite an 20th minute substitution for the injured Javi Morales (who was in tears on the bench) and halftime substution to Will Johnson was played the first half despite an illness, RSL showed amazing grit and determination to play attacking soccer. Their brand is not Barcelona attractive, but neither is it old school English Route 1 soccer either. They played well as a unit and they worked for each other.

Veteran Andy Williams, who off-field issues including a wife with a rare form of leukemia, would have made this season an almost wash for him, played amazingly well, even as a 32 year old journeyman. Williams who normally would have been subbed out at the end of the game, put in a solid 120 minutes, despite obvious exhaustion.

But in the end it was Nick Rimando, who at 5'9" is the smallest goal keeper in the leauge, who made the day. Despite his size, Rimando is an absolute beast on penalty kicks. He saved three last week against the Fire, made two saves last night and was such a distraction that the normally clinical Landon Donovan actually pulled a Roberto Baggio on his penalty kick. (for non-soccer readers look up Baggio and the 1994 World Cup final).

so the Cinderella run is complete and RSL hoists the Anschultz Trophy. They deserved to do so and I will have more thoughts later.

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