SEATTLE — The playoffs have been a wild ride for Real Salt Lake, so it's only fitting that Sunday's MLS Cup ended in the most dramatic fashion possible — a shootout.
That always favors a team with Nick Rimando.
The RSL keeper is arguably the best in Major League Soccer when it comes to stopping penalty kicks and not surprisingly he came up big again. Rimando saved a pair of penalty kicks in the shootout as Real Salt Lake defeated the L.A. Galaxy 5-4 on penalties to claim the MLS Cup in just its fifth year of existence.
"I thought we played our hearts out tonight. We played our style of soccer. When we play our style of soccer it's pretty fun to watch and it's pretty fun to play," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman. "It went longer than we would've wanted."
The game finished tied at 1-1 after regulation and overtime and the championship was ultimately decided on penalty kicks for just the second time in league history.
Robbie Russell buried the decisive kick in the seventh round of penalty kicks, which came just two rounds after Andy Williams squandered a chance to win it when his poor effort was saved by L.A. back-up keeper Josh Saunders — one of two saves by Saunders in the shootout.
"I thought both goalkeepers were great. What more can you say?" said L.A. coach Bruce Arena. "I thought they both saved two penalties tonight, that's pretty remarkable."
Williams never seemed worried despite his miss. His keeper came up big in an Eastern Conference final shootout win over Chicago last week and Williams figured he'd came up big again.
After Chris Klein and Chris Wingert buried their respective shots in the sixth round, Rimando went to his left to save Edson Buddle's penalty and then Russell stepped up and buried the winner.
"Me and all the guys knew that if it came down to penalty kicks were were confident just going back from last week," said Rimando.
More stunning than the saves in the shootout was Landon Donovan's miss. In his entire MLS career Donovan was 21 of 23 on penalty kicks, and he'd hit the target on ever attempt. He sprayed his penalty over the crossbar though and into the Seattle Sounders supporters section.
Russell's penalty put the finishes touches on an unlikely championship season for the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.
After being presented with the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy at midfield, Real Salt Lake's players jumped giddily up and down on the podium in front of the roughly 2,000 fans who made the trek to Seattle from Utah.
"We get a small indication about what it means by how many people were there tonight. I thought it was outstanding fan support," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "I went down to the fish market today and I must've seen a hundred Real Salt Lake fans and maybe five Galaxy fans. I think that was an indication of how well supported we were tonight and how important to the people of Salt Lake City."
Utahns weren't the only ones cheering either. There was plenty of support for RSL among the 46,011 fans as many Seattle Sounders fans also rooted for the underdog.
Throughout most of the first half though there wasn't much to cheer for. With RSL's midfield slowed by Will Johnson's illness and Javier Morales' injury, the Galaxy enjoyed the better of the opportunities throughout the first half.
The Galaxy finally capitalized on the possession in the 40th minute to go ahead 1-0 as Mike Magee hammered home a Landon Donovan cross at the far post.
It was a fitting goal for Los Angeles after dominating the opening half. Just four minutes before Magee put his team in front, he put a left-footed shot about 12 inches wide of the far post.
Halftime allowed RSL to settle down and regroup and it made a huge difference in the quality of play.
"We didn't settle down as nicely as I would've liked us to and didn't possess the ball as nicely as I would've liked us to, but in the second I thought we did a much better job," said Kreis. "My honest opinion is we deserved to win that game and I'm glad we did."
Real Salt Lake had a great opportunity to equalize in the 48th minute on an unimpeded dribbling run into the box by Robbie Findley. A heavy touch by Findley though enabled Donovan Ricketts to come off his line and block Findley's toe-poke at the ball.
Findley and Ricketts collided violently after the shot, which ultimately forced Ricketts to leave the game in the 66th minute with a right hand contusion.
Before he was subbed off though, he made another outstanding save by blocking a Russell shot with his feet in the 60th minute.
In the 64th minute though Ricketts was helpless to do anything about RSL's equalizing goal. Yura Movsisyan's shot in traffic pinged off two Galaxy players, and fortunately for RSL it settled at the feet of Findley who buried the wide-open shot from eight yards out.
In the final 26 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime both teams had some opportunities, but RSL's possession-oriented style was much more dangerous as it finished the game outshooting Los Angeles 19-13.
"What we saw this year was that at certain points in the season and in certain games we saw what we were capable of," said Kreis. "We saw when we played our best soccer we were one of the best teams in the league. So now it's nice to say we are the best team in the league."
e-mail: [email protected]