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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Real Salt Lake players wear their medals and hold aloft the MLS Cup after defeating the heavily favored Los Angeles Galaxy in a shootout at Qwest Field Sunday in Seattle.

SEATTLE — Maybe somewhere in the eons ahead, someone will figure where Real Salt Lake fits into the big picture.

Which is fine with RSL.

The experts can take their time.

All it knows is that it got there.

And that finishing in second place isn't quite good enough.

On the list of all-time surprise teams, in anyone's league, Real Salt Lake has to rank near the top, winning Major League Soccer's championship Sunday night, 5-4, on penalty kicks. RSL defender Robbie Russell gave Utah its first major professional championship since the 1971 Utah Stars won the ABA title, with a seventh-round penalty kick.

"Where to begin?" said RSL coach Jason Kreis, who added, "At certain points, in certain games, we saw what we were capable of, which is being one of the best teams in the league. Now we are the best team in the league."

Nothing to prove now, except whether this is the craziest championship ever. By anyone.

Nobody, but nobody, wins less than half its games and then wins it all.

It wasn't a great season, just a great finish. Which is what everyone will remember.

"I have the feeling this is really important and will be a really big thing for Utah," said Kreis.

Second place, of course, is where teams from Utah had come to reside. It was a tradition, like Pioneer Day and fry sauce. The Jazz made second place a habit in the '90s, finishing behind the Chicago Bulls in the race for the NBA title, back in 1997 and 1998. The University of Utah basketball team finished second in the NCAA Tournament in 1998.

More recently, the Ute football team finished second in the national rankings, last year, despite an undefeated season.

BYU won a national title in 1984 in football and Utah won a basketball championship in 1944.

Other than some minor league baseball titles, there hasn't been much among major spectator sports.

Even when you're perfect — as were the Ute football teams in 2004 and 2008 — they were a step or two shy of the brass ring, thanks to the poll voters.

Second place, of course, is nothing to scoff at. Jack Nicklaus finished second 19 times in majors. Gisele Bundchen, wife of football star Tom Brady, finished second in a Vanity Fair survey of the world's most beautiful women ... The Rolling Stones finished second on the list of greatest bands of all time.

Second isn't bad.

It's just that first is so ... definitive.

In reality, RSL wasn't afforded much attention from the start. America's most famous team was playing America's least famous. L.A. had one superstar in Landon Donovan and one metrosexual tabloid hunk in David Beckham.

Real had, well, some guys who tried really hard.

You could make a case in winning, Real has become the worst (weirdest?) team ever to win a championship. It won just 11 games and totaled 40 points in the standings. It didn't make the playoffs until the final day of the season and then needed help from several other teams to qualify.

The 1995 Houston Rockets won just 47 games, yet took the NBA Title. The '87 Minnesota Twins won the World Series after winning just eight games more than they lost. The '85 Villanova Wildcats lost 10 games and were an eighth seed, yet won an NCAA championship in basketball.

Still, it would be hard to find a champion in any sport that lost more games than it won.

"I'm just smiling and having fun," said Kreis.

Whatever the case, it was a movie-like story.

Real was the Rudy Ruettiger of soccer.

Sunday was, by any measure, a festive night. A sold-out crowd of 46,011 showed up, 6,000 or so who scooped up extra tickets that were released late in the week. The national anthem was sung by not one but three singers, who invited the audience to sing along. The MLS Cup was lugged in by two gold-and-white-clad women as glittering confetti was released.

Glitter covered the field throughout the game — and it wasn't just the reflection of Beckham.

Real seemed to be enjoying it, too, right up until L.A.'s Mike Magee found the net in the 41st minute.

Early on, it appeared L.A. was in control. It kept the action in RSL's area throughout most of the first half. Then Real struck. Findley snared a ball that first caromed off two Galaxy players, tying the score in the 64th minute.

RSL was back in the miracle business.

All of which gives RSL a unique position in Utah sports.

It now has the chance to say something to future teams that may win a title: What took you so long?

e-mail: rock@desnews.com