By Paul Gardner
As soccer finals go -- and they haven't been going that well lately -- this was not at all bad. It's always satisfying to see the underdogs come through,
especially when they manage to play the better soccer. And Real Salt Lake certainly did that.
So the better team won, without any doubt at all. For the first 45 minutes, Bruce Arena's
patchwork of oldsters and youngsters, of superstars and nobodies, managed to maintain the illusion that they were capable of playing good soccer. But that's all it was -- an illusion. When Landon
Donovan doesn't turn up -- and he was quite remarkably absent from this game -- then the Galaxy has not much to offer.
Maybe they just about deserved their halftime lead -- but it's
questionable. Mike Magee's goal was a beauty, but it was tarnished by the action of the man who was supposed to shine and glitter and sparkle all over this game: David Beckham. His "tackle" that put
Javier Morales (a key player for RSL) out of the game was a disgrace. Either it was a clumsy collision, or it was a piece of blatant thuggery. You have a right to believe that an international class
player, one who has let it be known that he wants to lead England to World Cup glory next year, doesn't make "tackles" like that.
Clint Mathis came on for Real and he soon came close to
suffering the same fate as Morales, when the massively unimpressive Chris Birchall performed a two-footed jump into his ankles. Real suffered another forced substitution when Will Johnson had to leave
the game at halftime, making way for Ned Grabavoy. It all seemed to be working to the Galaxy's advantage, but that was not what happened.
From the beginning of the second half, Real was
increasingly in charge of this game. It was Real that showed how to play good possession soccer, it was Real that gave us a fine exhibition of smooth, easy ball control and accurate passing. Their
attacking players, Robbie Findley, Yura Movsisyan and Fabian Espindola repeatedly caused problems for the Galaxy defense. Yes, this famous Galaxy defense, the one that was getting all the praise for
getting the Galaxy to the final. It looked utterly threadbare against the quick-moving Real forwards.
Obviously, Real should have had a penalty kick in the 60th minute when Birchall
brought down Movsisyan without getting anywhere near the ball. But, ho hum, how used to this sort of blindness we have become, referee Kevin Stott saw no evil. Inexplicable. And a shame, for on the
whole Stott had a very good game.
The Real dominance continued, and how pleasing to see who was at the center of so much of Real's play: Kyle Beckerman, absolutely indefatigable, always
involved, always cool, passing the ball cleanly and accurately, defending and tackling well. A real captain's performance.
How well Real was playing. If soccer were not such an absurdly
contrary sport, Real would have won this game without the necessity for the damn penalty kicks. But the Galaxy managed to hang on, a raggedy looking bunch, whose main attacking weapon eventually
became the long kicks of substitute goalkeeper Josh Saunders. Yes, the Galaxy was that short of ideas. Nothing came from Beckham, his crosses were invariably off target, his one hopeful free kick hit
the wall. Yet again, Beckham failed to make any impression as an on-field presence in MLS.
I do not like penalties as a way of deciding a game, but I'd have to be blind to deny that they
have a built in drama of their own. For me, most of that drama on this occasion came with my fear that the better team, the one that had played the real soccer, might end up on the losing end of this
Surely the Galaxy, this empty shell of a team, could not walk away with the trophy? Well, they just might have done. That awful moment when the clearly exhausted Andy
Williams walked up to take the kick that would seal the thing for Real ... and saw his weak effort saved by Saunders carried the suspicion that this was not to be Real's night.
So it came
down to defense after all -- Real's. Nick Rimando saved Edson Buddle's kick, while fullbacks Chris Wingert and Robbie Russell scored the vital goals.
I remain totally puzzled at what has
happened to Bruce Arena's vision of the game that he can thrust a pedestrian team like this at us -- pedestrian even with Donovan and Beckham. But I have nothing but praise for Jason Kreis for playing
the sport with admirable attacking brio
. I made the mistake of listening to Kreis's post-game interview, full of all the worn out phrases like everyone playing for everyone else and so on.
Better not to listen to that stuff.
Then came the one really false note of the evening, when the MVP trophy was presented to Nick Rimando. For making two saves in the shootout. May I
point out that the Galaxy's Josh Saunders also made two shoot-out saves? Heaven knows who the geniuses are who decide these things. Maybe the press, for all I know.
But the problem of
giving the award to Rimando is that it meant a huge injustice to someone else -- in this case Kyle Beckerman, who played superbly for 120 wearying minutes of fiercely competitive soccer.
Yes, Commissioner Don Garber, you can be pleased with this final -- a wonderful crowd, great atmosphere, a passably good game, a dramatic shootout, and a fairy-tale ending. And we all feel warm
about fairy-tale endings, don't we?