MLS Cup: Real Salt Lake Worthy Winners

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 absurd lottery.

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?


8 comments about "MLS Cup: Real Salt Lake Worthy Winners".
  1. Austin Gomez, November 23, 2009 at 11:25 a.m.

    I am so happy for St. Louis born & bred Jason Kreis: a true, quality leader
    as manager of the victorious MLS Cup winner --- Real Salt Lake!
    This professional team truly lived up to its Latin meaning: "kingly, royal."

    Coming from my classical languages' background, all I can happily - proudly - boldly - loudly mutter for this very resilient, deservedly better, most skillful, cleverly tactical, and vastly superior team of RSL is: "CARPE DIEM" et "CARPE DIEM"! ! !


  2. Walt Pericciuoli, November 23, 2009 at 11:45 a.m.

    Kyle Beckerman, easily the best player on the night. Should be MVP
    Does that earn him a bigger role with the USA?
    If he can preform as well at the next level, he could be just what the doctor ordered to fill that central playmaker role, free up Donovan and Dempsy to move forward and attack. Keep Bradley back as a holding mid.
    Congrats to RSL, they played soccer.

  3. Gary Zelazny, November 23, 2009 at 12:43 p.m.

    two comments.why did they have to play on artificial turf? it seems that the real turf should be required for such an important occasion. it detractd from the style of the was good to see the more attractive team win.gary

  4. Dick Burns, November 23, 2009 at 12:45 p.m.

    All to often with MVP awards in all sports, the award goes to the last player who does one thing that finalizes the win. I agree with Paul that Beckerman should be MVP. In this game he surely was the glue that kept RSL together in spite of injuries to key players.

  5. Charles Bauer, November 23, 2009 at 1:33 p.m.

    Well, now I remember why I stopped reading Mr. Gardner's stuff quite some time ago. I'm no Beckham apologist but in this game, before his leg pretty much gave out, Beckham made multiple superb crosses and one-touch pinpoint passes which opened up the defense, or would have except that his teammates simply could not handle or capitalize on them. Nearly every Galaxy threat was doused by lack of skill at the forward positions, like most of the time Buddle touched the ball, for example. Calling his tackle on Morales an intentional effort to put him out is quite a stretch, even for a hater like Gardner. Why this stuff still gets printed is beyond me.

  6. Robert Raines, November 23, 2009 at 4:08 p.m.

    Yes he best team won, and I predicted it during the first half when it was
    obvious the galaxy was playing their old game of kicking while possessing the ball to points unknown. Often to the receiving side, you know who ...
    Where as S.L. controlled the ball with grace.

    My galaxy team was a disgrace, I would have hated seeing them with the

    Still a Galaxy Fan, Bob

  7. John Hofmann, November 23, 2009 at 4:10 p.m.

    Points about Kyle B. being the MVP, very possibly. Criticism of Arena, no. I believe Bruce deserved mgr of the year -- he completely re-did the team in one year, under financial constraints of set, big salaries, seemed to get about the best players he could get under the constraints he had. Give him more time and I suspect a number of the players on the field last night will be gone as he continues to upgrade. Beckham's foul -- not quite the horrible event Paul describes. Finally, seemed to me to be a total change in strategy, or something else ? from half to half. First half, no SLC player had any space at all whenever they got the ball. Always an LA player right there, to disrupt their concentration and keep SLC from developing any kind of passing, free flow play down the field. Seemed to me that the strategy was working to perfection. Second half, very quickly the pressing defense all over the field was missing, SLC players had room to receive the ball and either run with it (lots of space) or pass without pressure, and they just got stronger as the half went on. Was this a change in strategy (bad if it was) or was LA simply unable to keep up the pressure all over the field? Or something else, magical?

  8. Eric R., November 23, 2009 at 8:25 p.m.

    I wanted to point out there was a significant flaw in LA's game plan. Arena (whose team strategies I admit not to like) made a strange decision to experiment in the final and start Donovan on the wing rather than upfront, only to try to adjust that later in the game. I don't know what he was thinking there. When the chips were down, Arena built a defensive team that was unable to capitalize on the talent of 2 of the most skillful players in the league (use of Beckham was predictable and Donovan showed he was the ony treal offensive threat on the team). I do feel SL was the better team. They allowed more goals than LA during the season, but they played more attractive soccer. More importantly, they came from behind and defeated LA using defense (albeit in penalty kicks).

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