SEATTLE -- An L.A. Galaxy appearance in the MLS Cup final is extra time waiting to happen. And maybe a penalty-kick tiebreaker, too.
But it all worked out splendidly for Real Salt Lake, which took down the glamour guys from the Galaxy in the second MLS Cup final decided by penalty kicks.
The overachievers from one of the league's smallest markets overcame ample hardship thanks to superior fitness and, even more, to a goalkeeper who specializes in turning away spot shots. The Utah side also had just enough shooters able to be calm under pressure, as a blue-collar club with no real front-line international stars claimed a 5-4 edge in a tiebreaker that went seven shooters deep.
Real Salt Lake had landed in Sunday's final at Qwest Field thanks to last week's penalty-kick tiebreaker win in Chicago. For the final, extra time and penalty kicks were always going to favor the underdog side -- and RSL needed some kind of fortune leaning its way.
If manager Jason Kreis and his side of relatively anonymous toilers were already carrying the longer odds, things got considerably worse when RSL's midfield virtually disintegrated.
First, midfield creator Javier Morales crumbled beneath David Beckham's tough challenge and limped off with a knee sprain in the 22nd minute. Then, workhorse Will Johnson had to leave at halftime, with energy stores obviously running low due to a bout with food poisoning.
"Me and all the guys knew if it came to penalty kicks that we were confident," said match MVP Nick Rimando, who was named MVP for saving two of the Galaxy's seven shots. Landon Donovan also missed his attempt, but skied it high.
"Going back to last week, we handled business in Chicago," Rimando said. "But I really think we could have won this one in regulation."
Real Salt Lake certainly controlled the extra time, coming close to breaking through three or four times. Still, that it went 120 minutes and eventually needed to be decided by penalty kicks could hardly be called a remarkable surprise. This was the sixth MLS Cup final to go into extra time; the Galaxy has played in five of them.
Despite the lineup upheaval, Real was the better side after halftime, which is a little surprising considering the way things unfolded. Clint Mathis, not really a 90-minute guy anymore, and reservist Ned Grabavoy came in for the injured Morales and ill Johnson. Few would have predicted Mathis would play such a major role almost 10 years to the day from his last MLS Cup appearance. And who could have predicted that Grabavoy would make one of his longest appearances of the season?
"That's what's so gratifying, that we have had so some many people contribute," said Kreis, the fourth former MLS player to win a league crown as a head coach. He's also the youngest coach yet to claim one at age 36.
Not much went wrong for RSL in the second half, especially after Kreis encouraged his team at halftime to make the extra pass in midfield and remain patient. It worked perfectly as emerging striker Robbie Findley became increasingly dangerous. He supplied the critical equalizer and later calmly converted his tiebreaker chance. He surely would have been named MVP but for Rimando's ongoing heroics.
Center backs Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave muffled Galaxy striker Edson Buddle all night, and unheralded right back Robbie Russell matched Donovan's pace.
Still, suffice to say that the men of Utah would not have been in Major League Soccer's 14th title game if not for Rimando. He was superb last week in Chicago with three worthy saves, guiding the visitors to an upset over Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the Fire.
As for penalty kicks and the Galaxy, Rimando and RSL already had some serious hoodoo voodoo going against Los Angeles, and Donovan in particular. Donovan had taken 23 spot shots in his MLS career, including playoff contests. He had failed to convert only twice: once against Rimando and once against Jeff Cassar, who is now RSL's goalkeeper coach.
Rimando, who earned an MLS title with D.C. United back in 2004, saved Sunday off Jovan Kirovski and (a little too easily) off Buddle. But his encounter with Donovan was wrapped in the most intrigue; the Galaxy star is one of domestic soccer's top penalty-kick snipers and Rimando is one of the league's top stoppers on PKs.
Donovan, the Galaxy's fourth shooter, launched his tiebreaker attempt well into the chilly Seattle night. Was the Galaxy striker thinking about it all too much? Rimando shrugged off the notion of "being in Donovan's head."
"Landon's been in that position before, probably with more people in the stands than tonight," Rimando said. "I wanted to stay in the middle as long as I could because I knew he was going to look up. And he likes to go to the middle, high. I think just staying there that extra little bit kind of made him think a little bit. I think I was fortunate, because he usually buries those."
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.