SEATTLE -- As it is every year, this MLS Cup was a coronation. Yet what set this version apart was that it was also a battle of attrition. Starting lineups and substitution patterns were thrown completely off kilter as injuries piled up. But in the end, Real Salt Lake prevailed in a penalty shootout, 5-4, over the Los Angeles Galaxy, after 120 minutes of play had finished tied 1-1.
Once again, it was RSL keeper Nick Rimando who came up big in soccer's version of Russian roulette, saving penalty-kick attempts from Jovan Kirovski and Edson Buddle, while Landon Donovan fired his attempt high and wide.
And it offset a splendid effort from L.A. substitute keeper Josh Saunders. Saunders replaced starter Donovan Ricketts in the second half when the Jamaican was forced to leave with a broken right hand, and the sub saved two spot kicks of his own, including one in the fifth round from Andy Williams with the game on the line.
But on a night when RSL overcame the losses of playmaker Javier Morales due to injury in the first half and midfielder Will Johnson at halftime due to illness, Real survived to claim its first championship, with Rimando setting the table for defender Robbie Russell to slot home the game-winning attempt.
"We started off with a dream and an idea of what this team could look like, and would look like over time," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "What we saw this year was that at certain points in the season and in certain games, we saw what we were capable of. We saw that when we played our best soccer, we were one of the best teams in the league."
Given what RSL endured in the first half on Sunday night, it was borderline miraculous that Kreis and his players were on the podium collecting winners' medals. L.A. had the better of the opening 45 minutes despite losing midfielder Dema Kovalenko to a viral infection. The Galaxy's makeshift central pairing of Chris Birchall and Jovan Kirovski did enough to put RSL off their game, as did a clearly hobbled David Beckham.
"I had three injections in my ankle, and it wore off after about 15 minutes," said the Galaxy midfielder.
Of course, part of the Galaxy's edge was due to the sprained lateral collateral ligament that Morales suffered in his left knee just 15 minutes into the match. A clumsy, knee-to-knee challenge from Beckham sent Morales crumpling to the turf. And despite trying to carry on for seven more minutes, the Argentine ultimately left the game in tears.
Morales' departure was a body blow from which Real spent the rest of the half trying to recover, as substitute Clint Mathis struggled to make an impact. Meanwhile, L.A. began finding space in midfield, especially after Donovan moved up front to partner with Edson Buddle.
Magee spurned a great chance to put L.A. up in the 36th minute, dragging his shot wide after being set up by Donovan. But the Galaxy forward made amends five minutes later. A quick exchange of passes in midfield allowed Beckham to find Donovan on the right wing, and his inch-perfect cross found Magee at the far post to volley home from close range.
As the half ended, there appeared to be no way back for RSL. But Kreis made an inspired substitution, bringing on Ned Grabavoy for Johnson, and suddenly, a team the couldn't string more than two passes together in the first half was carving the Galaxy defense apart, with Kyle Beckerman increasingly putting his stamp on the game.
Yet as much as the switch sparked RSL, Kreis insisted the bigger change occurred inside the team's collective head.
"It was [more] about the mentality of the group, being able to calm down and play soccer," said Kreis. "I thought we were just too often trying to thread those very narrow passes in through the middle. ... We needed to play wide more and be a bit more patient."
The onslaught was initially stifled by Ricketts, who denied Robbie Findley and Russell on point-blank attempts. But in the 64th minute, Findley was quickest to pounce on a rebound after Yura Movsisyan's initial attempt had been blocked, and it was game on.
The virulent injury bug then reared its head again, as Ricketts was forced to leave the match due to a broken right hand he sustained in an earlier collision with teammate Omar Gonzalez. Saunders came in and performed admirably, but the fact that L.A. had to burn a substitution on a goalkeeper left the team, as coach Bruce Arena put it, "a little bit handcuffed" -- especially when Gonzalez was forced to leave the game with cramps.
The introduction of L.A.'s Chris Klein helped stem the tide a bit, but aside from a few threats on the counter and the occasional Beckham cross, it was RSL's possession game that eventually carried the day. This had the effect of taking Donovan almost completely out of the game.
"I think it just wears on you when you're playing defense a lot and your counterattack is just such a ... you know, it's at a high pace," said Beckerman. "So when you're counterattacking, you're going from defending, defending, defending to a sprint. It starts to take on your legs a little bit."
Yet RSL's edge in possession wasn't enough to make a breakthrough, either in normal or extra time. That set the stage for Rimando's heroics. And for the second time in his career, he stymied Donovan.
"I was fortunate that [Donovan] went over, because he usually buries those," said Rimando." But I'm two-for-two, right?"
He is indeed. And when it comes to MLS Cups, Real Salt Lake is now one-for-one.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.