Real Salt Lake may have had a middling season. They may have sneaked into the playoffs on the last day of the campaign. They may have a team of names that would never go on the MLS marquee. None of that matters very much right now. Real Salt Lake are deserved winners of the MLS Cup after outplaying the LA Galaxy on a cold night in Seattle.
The game may have gone to penalty kicks, which are always a flip of the coin, but Real Salt Lake were unlucky not to win the game earlier. RSL coach Jason Kreis had a simple game plan – own the middle of the park and cut off the distribution lanes to Landon Donovan. Key to that plan was purposeful running by Kyle Beckerman, who was simply outstanding. He was constantly tracking back, retrieving balls, getting in the Galaxy’s face, and spraying the ball all over the turf.
On the other side of the ball, David Beckham’s bruised ankle curtailed his work-rate, and Beckham looked like he was playing with one flat tire. He was a step slow and had a tough time winning balls. Beckham was stripped of the ball in the middle of the field several times and was unable to find the telling pass all game.
Without much distribution, Landon Donovan ran a lot but generated little. The one exception was the Galaxy’s only good moment of the game. The Galaxy won the bill in the mid-field, Beckham took it up, and laid it off to Donovan who made a laser pass to Mike Magee’s foot and into the goal. Beckham’s layoff was wise and Magee’s shot was assured, but it was Donovan’s pass that was remarkable – a 20 yard sniper shot into the perfect position for Magee to poke home.
The goal came shortly before halftime, and the RSL team that emerged in the second half was a band of warriors. The Galaxy barely had a shot on goal in the second half, let alone a sustained spell of possession as Real Salt Lake put pressure on every ball. With Beckerman making all the right distributions, Salt Lake was constantly pressing forward, creating breaks and making chances. One of their best chances ended up in a three way collision in the box between the RSL’s energetic Robbie Findley, and Galaxy behemoths Donovan Rickets and Omar Gonzalez.
Ricketts hurt his hand in the collision and he was clearly in distress. However, he stayed in long enough to pick the ball out of his net a few minutes later. RSL broke into the box with Yura Movsisyan and Robbie Findley pressuring Todd Dunivant into a rushed clearance that rebounded off of Gonzalez and right to Findley who slotted it in. That was Ricketts’ last moment as he was replaced by Josh Saunders. Gonzalez followed Ricketts to the bench a few minutes later with a twisted ankle.
For the rest of the game and the two overtime periods, all the pressure was applied by Real Salt Lake, but the Galaxy parried away their chances. On the other end, Beckham was clearly struggling and the Galaxy could neither sustain possession nor find a solid break-away opportunity. Penalty kicks loomed.
For the players taking penalty kicks, it is one of the worst positions in sports. Few players are proclaimed heroes for making a kick, but missing a kick is an utter failure. RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando certainly has the ability to make penalty takers look like failures as he demonstrated last week against Chicago. Both Saunders and Rimando saved two kicks, but the main talking point of the game will be the Landon Donovan’s miss.
Death, taxes and Donovan taking penalties are usually very reliable. In his entire MLS career, Donovan has never failed to put a penalty shot on frame. Until tonight. To seasoned Donovan watchers, his entire body language seemed off. His usual elaborate pre-kick ritual was curtailed. He seemed to be paying more attention to Rimando in his run-up than to the ball. He struck the ball oddly and sent it straight over the bar. As Donovan turned from the goal, he ripped his captain’s armband off in disgust. If that winds up being Donovan’s last touch as a member of the Galaxy and he moves to Europe in January, that will be a distressing way to end his Galaxy career.
A few minutes later, after Rimando saved against Edson Buddle, RSL’s Robbie Russell shot right, Josh Saunders dived left, and Real Salt Lake were the MLS Champions. After the game, Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena called it a war of attrition, and he is probably right. However, tonight RSL had more ammunition in its arsenal to fight this war, and it was the Galaxy who staggered off the battlefield bloodied and bowed.