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Why Real Salt Lake was better
by Ridge Mahoney, November 23rd, 2009 6:45PM

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The better team won MLS Cup 2009, and that's not just in the sense that Real Salt Lake played better than the favored Los Angeles Galaxy.

For the Galaxy, as good as its 12-6-12 record might indicate, wasn't as good a team as RSL, which won only one fewer game but had much less luck getting ties (11-12-7). RSL was better in the sense that from back to front it was stronger, while the Galaxy had the more brilliant stars in Landon Donovan and David Beckham, but not as much experience and talent, position by position, or off the bench.

Omar Gonzalez won the MLS Rookie of the Year Award and formed a good partnership with veteran Gregg Berhalter, but the RSL central pairing of Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers proved to be steadier in the final as well as down the stretch as it posted four shutouts in its last six games.

 

Right back Robbie Russell, one of several players to fill that slot during the season, rallied after losing the mark on Mike Magee's goal that gave the Galaxy a 1-0 lead and owned his flank in the second half and overtime, while first Sean Franklin and then substitute A.J. DeLaGarza had to stay back as RSL took command of the match.

Jovan Kirovski and Chris Birchall were assigned to man the middle in the absence of Dema Kovalenko, kept by illness out of the starting lineup, and limit the touches of Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman. The Galaxy lost Donovan Ricketts and Omar Gonzalez to injuries and cramps, respectively, in the second half. Yet RSL had to replace playmaker Morales midway through the first half, his knee injured on a Beckham foul, and midfielder Will Johnson, weakened by food poisoning, at halftime, and kicked it up a notch with Clint Mathis and Ned Grabavoy marauding in midfield.

Had Donovan and Beckham been sharp and at the top of their game, they'd probably have cut open RSL more often than they did. A great early ball by Beckham released Donovan down the right wing to float a far post cross that Magee tucked away late in the first half. Yet Magee and forward partner Edson Buddle were seldom able to hold the ball or finish combinations with Donovan within shooting range, and while RSL forwards Yura Movsisyan and Robbie Findley were typically wasteful of their few chances, they were far more threatening than the Galaxy attackers. Grabavoy, in particular, grew in influence as the minutes ticked by, and by the onset of overtime he and Beckerman had completely blotted out their Galaxy counterparts as Mathis and Russell launched attacks.

Findley equalized through sheer persistence, as the Galaxy first failed to clear a cross and then a Movsisyan shot that caromed off Gonzalez. Findley pounced to steer the ball past Ricketts, who had suffered a hand injury a few minutes earlier and fell on the hand again scrambling to block Findley's shot.

In the tiebreaker, keeper Nick Rimando stopped two penalty kicks and held his ground long enough to befuddle Donovan, who shot over the bar after watching during his approach to see which way Rimando would dive. In the seventh round of kicks, Rimando easily snuffed Buddle, and Russell, whose seven-year stint in Europe ended when he joined RSL in August of 2008, easily beat substitute goalie Josh Saunders, then fell to his knees, his face contorted and fists clenched in triumph. Then Russell was smothered by his teammates.

It was a fitting celebration for a team told by its coach, Jason Kreis, from day one that the team is the star.

 

 



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