[MLS CUP '09] Whichever team slips and slides its way to the MLS Cup title Sunday at Qwest Field (8:30 p.m ET, ESPN, Galavision), both have broken new ground in 2009. It's been raining, which adds yet another variable to a rich mix of factors. Real Salt Lake is marking its fifth season with a first final appearance; the two-time champion Galaxy, one of the league's original 10 members, is playing in a record sixth final and is back for the first time since it capped a memorable playoff run by beating New England, 1-0, in MLS Cup 2005.
That game went into overtime, a prospect certainly possible for this edition. Both teams played an additional 30 minutes in the conference finals but with a break of more than a week fatigue from those games won't be as influential as the cumulative effects of a long season, which perhaps affected teams like Chicago, conquered by RSL on penalty kicks after 120 minutes of scoreless play at Toyota Park.
After beating Columbus home and away in the conference semifinals, and outlasting the Fire on the road as well, RSL players have been asked many times why their playoff fate came down to the last day and a 3-0 thumping of Colorado that edged them into the playoffs as the eighth and lowest seed. In the playoffs, they beat the defending champion Crew, 4-2, on aggregate before heading to Chicago.
"We were inconsistent during the regular season," says keeper Nick Rimando, who won MLS Cup 2004 with D.C. United, "and I think that's where we got in trouble on the road, not playing consistent soccer. At the end of the season we ended up playing really, really good soccer. We got a rhythm."
Counters midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman, "I think we were actually really consistent: We won at home (9-1-5) and lost on the road (2-11-2)." Included in those marks are a 2-0 home win and 2-2 away tie in games against LA.
On a more serious note, to wit the strength of his team, Beckerman cites a midfield of which he is the hub. With the wide midfielders tucked in, angles and spaces are created by which combinations can be connected with playmaker Javier Morales. Yet opponents must be wary of balls played quickly to the frontrunners, where pace abounds in Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan and/or Fabian Espindola.
The touch and experience of Clint Mathis and Andy Williams, and the quickness and tenacity of Will Johnson give Coach Jason Kreis a formidable array of options.
"Main thing, when we get our passing going, the diamond seems to work and open up teams," says Beckerman. "So that's what we're going to try to do, really connect some passes in the midfield, get everybody touches on [the ball], get them moving around, trying to chase the ball, and as soon as we get them chasing, try to get in behind them and get it to our forwards' feet."
Kreis came to RSL prior to the 2005 expansion season and suddenly retired early five games into the 2007 campaign when named to replace John Ellinger as head coach. The transition hasn't been a rough one, say his players, even though at 36, he's younger than players on other teams, and is the same age as Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter.
"You're fighting for your coach, and as a player he wanted to win more than anybody," says Rimando. "I've had an opportunity to play with him so I knew that from the beginning. He's led us in the right direction with that winner's mentality."
Weather, artificial turf, a big crowd, and underdog status isn't likely to faze the RSL players or their head coach. Williams, for one, isn't agonizing about changing his game, or his shoes. "I wear the same ones I wear for grass, most of the time," he says. "I've played in this league a long time (since 1999), I can play on the wet stuff."
Williams and backup keeper Chris Seitz are the only holdovers from the RSL five-win expansion season of 2005, the last year Los Angeles won the title. In the three barren seasons that followed, the Galaxy didn't dip quite that low, but it drew ridicule for losing records and inept management that went through four coaches (Sigi Schmid, Steve Sampson, Frank Yallop, Ruud Gullit) in rapid succession.
Anschutz Entertainment Group hired Bruce Arena in August of last year, and after the Galaxy finished 2008 tied with expansion San Jose for last place in the Western Conference at 8-13-9, he shook up the roster and adjusted the attitude. Donovan led the team in scoring with 12 goals and six assists, but six other players contributed at least two goals.
"I'm real happy for our players, they've really come together this year as a team," says Arena. "We knew at the beginning of the year it was going to take a little time and patience but with the leadership of Landon and David, our second half of our season has been terrific."
The Galaxy has rebounded from a 1-1-9 start to win 13 and tie four of its last 22 games. Its revamped defense halved its goals-allowed total, from 62 in 2008 to 31 this year, and it finished atop the Western Conference despite subpar seasons from forwards Edson Buddle (five goals) and Alan Gordon (three goals). Yet Gordon won the penalty kick that Donovan converted to clinch the 2-0 overtime defeat of Houston in the conference finale, for which he's been promised a reward from his most famous teammate.
"I promised him something," said Beckham. "I promised him a gift if he scored and he kind of created it. It was a gift." Reflected in that response is a camaraderie that seemed a Galaxy away 17 months ago, and that spirit Beckham and Donovan and their teammates will need to counteract a very determined and unified opponent.