Ramirez finds redemption
FRISCO, Texas -- It's fitting that in a season with enough ups and downs to induce an acute bout of nausea, the Los Angeles Galaxy's championship-winning goal was scored by Pando Ramirez, a player who, after a bright start to the season, had faded into obscurity. But like his team, Ramirez finished the season with a flourish, and it was his sublime volley in overtime that added some luster to an otherwise dour final in which Los Angeles prevailed 1-0.
The only other goal Ramirez scored this season was a penalty kick he tallied back in September against Colorado. But when New England goalkeeper Matt Reis punched Donovan's corner kick right to the Guatemalan international, he duly lashed the ball home, and a season's worth of frustration came pouring out.
"It's an incredible emotion," Ramirez said. "You can't really describe what you feel, to score a goal of this magnitude. It was beautiful, and you don't realize what you are feeling."
Back in midsummer, the Galaxy knew all too well what they were feeling. Some positively schizophrenic play by Los Angeles had many viewing the Galaxy as the biggest underachievers in MLS. But L.A.'s season was rescued with help from a most unlikely source; that redheaded stepchild of U.S. soccer competitions, the U.S. Open Cup.
It's a tournament that is treated by many coaches with contempt. How else can you explain that many teams will field almost a reserve lineup in the Open Cup and play full strength in an otherwise meaningless league game? But it's a competition that mirrors closely the crapshoot that is the MLS playoffs.
"Those [Open Cup] games, whether it was the first round or the final, it was do or die," Galaxy captain Peter Vagenas said. "It prepared us for games like this."
L.A.'s Cup run also gave the team a badly needed dose of confidence, especially when the road-averse Galaxy defeated San Jose in the quarterfinals at Spartan Stadium, 2-1. The side claimed its first trophy of the season a few weeks later, and -- according to Donovan -- it got the players thinking.
"We were like, 'If we can win the Open Cup, why not the MLS Cup?' I think we went through that last stretch of the season thinking that way. We weren't perfect through that stretch, but we were getting better, things were improving, and I think we realized we had a chance."
Once the playoffs hit, it was a chance the Galaxy sank their teeth into like a rabid dog and never let go. Head coach Steve Sampson's decision to move Donovan back up top galvanized the Los Angeles attack, and the team came together defensively. For all the criticism of the league's playoff format, the fact remains that Los Angeles outplayed every one of its postseason opponents, and that was especially true Sunday.
The game plan of Revs head coach Steve Nicol was to possess the ball and thus starve Galaxy front-runners Donovan and Herculez Gomez of service. At times, the Revolution succeeded, but it was a benign form of possession. L.A. was content to watch the likes of Daniel Hernandez and Shalrie Joseph knock the ball around in the middle third of the field. But creating chances in front of the goal required a higher tempo, especially against a Galaxy defense that had the likes of Tyrone Marshall and Ugo Ihemelu at the top of their game.
None of the Revs' attackers, in particular Steve Ralston and Clint Dempsey, was up to the challenge. With Ralston seeing a lot of the ball, the expectation was that Taylor Twellman or Pat Noonan eventually would latch on to one of his trademark crosses. But the Revolution midfielder's delivery was subpar, and with Dempsey offering little support, Twellman and Noonan were the ones left stranded. In fact, so frustrated was Twellman that later in the match he was making runs out wide in a desperate attempt to find the ball.
For New England, it continued a postseason trend that saw its offense bear little resemblance to the high-octane machine of the regular season. Players such as Ralston, Joseph and Noonan all carried injuries into the playoffs, and that certainly affected the Revolution attack. Playing at such a consistently high level all season took its toll, as well, leading Nicol to conclude that the final "was a game too far" for his side.
It wasn't until the introduction of Jose Cancela and Andy Dorman, which allowed Dempsey to move up top, that New England began to look remotely dangerous. It was Cancela who narrowly missed tying the score in the 118th minute, when Ihemelu's diving, headed clearance sent the Uruguayan's goal-bound shot narrowly wide. Ihemelu later quipped, "I probably got about two dreadlocks on [the ball]."
Los Angeles, meanwhile, was playing at a higher level. Not only was the Galaxy defense smothering the Revolution attack, but the team's efforts to spring quick counterattacks presented Gomez and Donovan with several good chances. Among those was a fierce drive from Gomez just before halftime that Reis did well to parry away.
New England adjusted in the second half, and the quick-strike opportunities began to dry up. But L.A. still had some great chances and really should have settled things before overtime. Cobi Jones rattled the bar in the 83rd minute, and Gomez should have done better two minutes earlier, when his breakaway attempt saw him opt for a cheeky lob rather than a more direct finish.
L.A.'s poor finishing gave the impression that perhaps the Galaxy's postseason luck was running out, but Ramirez took care of things in the extra session. Although some will argue that an undeserving team claimed the championship, the best-performing playoff side ultimately came out on top.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.