Red Bulls earn ticket to MLS Cup 2008

Maybe the gods of this game really are contrarians, as so often seems the case when one team plays the soccer and the other team gets the luck, when a fourth-year franchise playing just its fourth game in a new stadium packs the place yet sends a sellout crowd home unhappy. Reducing the Real Salt Lake-New York semifinal -- won by the Red Bulls, 1-0, Saturday in a pulsating Rio Tinto Stadium -- to that simple formula does an injustice to the resilient Red Bulls, scorers of an opportunistic goal in the 28th minute and stout fighters through numerous furious assaults.

Midfielder Dave van den Bergh scored on a rebound to finish off a counterattack he himself had started during one of the few times New York exploited RSL's back line. Despite taking 24 shots, three of which hit the goalposts, RSL couldn't match that goal and so its own storybook season ended in bitter fashion.

"It's a difficult game to score goals, as you saw tonight," said RSL coach Jason Kreis, who in his playing career netted 112 regular season and playoff goals. "It can happen that way and, unfortunately, it happened for us at the wrong time."

New York advances to play Columbus next Sunday in MLS Cup 2008 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC, TeleFutura) at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Not since the league's inaugural season, in 1996, have two MLS Cup debutants faced off in the final.

Some strange forces have been at work on the team formerly known as the MetroStars . A string of star players, tsunamis of cash from a few global conglomerates, and employment of several top coaches weren't enough to propel this franchise into an MLS Cup in its first dozen years of existence. Yet in Year 13, a sub.-.500 team during the regular season that had lost two national-team players in midseason to retirement and a transfer, two more to suspension with the playoffs looming, and two more to injuries in the playoffs, did the business.

They did so by winning twice on the road in the playoffs after winning just one away game during the regular season, and allowing just one goal in three postseason games.

Coach Juan Carlos Osorio replaced defender Andrew Boyens, who suffered a fractured forearm in the quarterfinals against Houston, with Carlos Mendes. Stalwart defensive work, especially from right back Chris Leitch - who picked himself after being flattened several times -- and central defender Diego Jimenez blunted numerous RSL forays, with young goalie Danny Cepero again saving at the critical moments.

Midway through the first half, Osorio had to remove central midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic, who started despite suffering a left hamstring strain in training Friday. The pairing of Ubiparipovic and rookie Luke Sassano had helped stabilized the Red Bulls in central midfield during the playoffs, yet Jorge Rojas took his spot and New York scored just five minutes after his entrance.

With RSL right back Robbie Russell pushed upfield, van den Bergh played a ball for John Wolyniec, who skipped past Jamison Olave's ill-chosen challenge. As Juan Pablo Angel cleared out the middle with a near-post run, Wolyniec hit a low cross from near the endline that diving keeper Nick Rimando could only parry right to van den Bergh, who didn't miss.

RSL, which had created three decent chances but failed to convert any of them before falling behind, squandered opportunities in every conceivable manner and invented a couple more as its frantic, screaming fans stared, incredulous at what they were witnessing.

In the 37th minute, Clint Mathis just failed to reach a curling Javier Morales free kick that came back off the right goalpost. In the second half, substitute Robbie Findley broke free on the right side and rolled a shot past Cepero that sprinting midfielder Will Johnson stretched to bump off the base of the left post from about a yard away. In stoppage time, the rebound of his own blocked shot fell to Morales, whose volley squeezed through a cluster of player. With Cepero rooted in the middle, the ball struck that same left post.

During the match, Cepero saved smartly from Yura Movsisyan and Russell, and thanked his fortunes when a wide-open chance fell to Olave, who clumsily hoofed it well over the bar. Movsisyan toppd the list of misses; Findley cut back a diagonal ball into the goalmouth that Movsisyan skied over the top.

Sassano had to hobble off in the 83rd minute. Juan Pietravallo took his spot, but the forced change didn't change RSL's luck.

Defender Nat Borchers came forward aggressively twice in the final minutes and headed over the bar from close range both times. About the only break RSL received came in the 69th minute when Dane Richards broke free but, instead of sticking his shot into the top corner as he'd done against Houston to start the scoring, missed the target.

On this night, fortune could reward only one team of destiny, and smiled upon that which had suffered the longest.

"We have to congratulate all the guys and the post," said Osorio. "I have been disappointed sometimes with our luck, but I think we got it today. The man upstairs has helped us today, but I think in general the guys deserved it."

Nov. 15 in Sandy, Utah
Real Salt Lake 0 New York Red Bulls 1

Goal: van den Bergh 28.
Real Salt Lake -- Rimando, Russell, Borchers, Olave (Williams, 72), Wingert, Beckerman, Kovalenko, Morales, Johnson, Mathis, Movsisyan.
New York -- Cepero, Mendes, Leitch, Goldthwaite, Jimenez, Richards, Sassano (Pietravallo, 83), Ubiparipovic (Jorge Rojas, 23), van den Bergh, Wolyniec, Angel.
Yellow cards: New York -- Goldthwaite 45, Rojas 64.
Referee: Jair Marrufo
Att.: 20,008.


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