Salt Lake's MLS title brings hope to sporting underdogs everywhere
The State of Utah had not had a pro-sports champion in 38 years
Real Salt Lake had a losing record but still qualified for the playoffs
Real Salt Lake has gone from laughingstock to MLS champ in two years
SEATTLE -- Bring up all the clichés you want: David over Goliath. Substance over style. Team over individual. They all fit Real Salt Lake, which outlasted the heavily favored Los Angeles Galaxy on penalty kicks Sunday night after a 1-1 draw and 120 minutes of last-man-standing soccer (RECAP).
And when defender Robbie Russell buried his spot kick, the 14th taken in an epic extra frame, RSL had logged arguably the biggest upset in the history of the MLS Cup final.
It wasn't just that RSL, despite its losing record, qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season as hands-down the team with the longest odds of hoisting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. What Salt Lake did was absolutely stunning. It blew through the Columbus Crew in the first round, dispatching the defending champions and this season's best team on its own turf. It outlasted the star-studded Chicago Fire in another road upset in the Eastern Conference final on penalty kicks.
Then on Sunday at Qwest Field, it shut down MLS' glamour team, David Beckham, Landon Donovan and all, showing it had the stamina, the determination and the superior fitness level. And in giving the state of Utah its first championship at the professional level in any sport since the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1971, the fifth-year franchise also put to bed the embarrassment of its first two seasons full of losing, endless dysfunction and a label as the laughingstock of MLS.
"We like being the underdog," said RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando, "and the underdog had its day."
No one embodies that spirit like Rimando. All throughout his 10-year MLS career, critics have knocked his lack of height as the reason he never joined the elite fraternity of American goalkeepers. But this postseason, the 5-foot-9 Rimando put RSL on his back and made save after miraculous save. Last week in Chicago, he stopped three penalties in the game-ending shootout to send Salt Lake past the favored Fire into the final. On Sunday, he repeated that feat, stopping three Galaxy spot kicks to preserve the win. And suddenly, Rimando said, all the critics have nothing left to say.
"There's gonna be haters all the time," he said from the corner of a champagne-soaked locker room, clutching his 18-month-old son, Jett, in his arms. "I'm short? OK. Let me play with my feet, let me save penalty kicks. Now we're champions. Let those people talk."
No keeper in MLS is as efficient as Rimando in stopping penalty kicks. In his career, he has stopped 13 of 42 PKs he has faced during regular play, an incredible stat for goals that are usually automatic for the opposition. After Sunday's dramatic ending, he has stopped six of 13 kicks on game-ending shootouts -- nearly half he has faced. That was a hefty psychological edge for RSL as the game inched closer and close to the end of overtime.
"I think me and the guys knew if it came down to penalty kicks, we were confident just going back [to] last week," Rimando said. "We handled business in Chicago."
As gassed as the Galaxy looked, the ending was perhaps predictable. Beckham and Gregg Berhalter nailed the first two kicks of the shootout, but Rimando stopped Jovan Kirovski on the third. And then Donovan -- the third most-efficient penalty-kick taker in MLS history -- stepped up ... and promptly launched the ball into the south stands.
"The penalty I hit like I hit any penalty," the Galaxy captain said of the miss. "I made sure he was going the other way and I closed my body. I just put it in the air. You know, it's probably partially due to tired legs and not concentrating in that moment."
And maybe that's the secret to Rimando's edge over Donovan: He's one of only two keepers ever to stop him on penalty kicks. "I was fortunate that he went over, because he usually buries those," said Rimando, laughing that he's now two for two against the prolific Donovan.
Six penalty-takers later, Russell buried his shot and clinched Salt Lake's unlikeliest of titles. And as RSL celebrated at the on-field podium and raised the trophy, you couldn't help but feel happy for a unit that has been written off as many times as Rimando has been called undersized. Once again, it wasn't a team with a high-paid Designated Player on its roster that won the championship. Instead, a collection of tight-knit, underrated and written-off players figured out a way to get the job done.
Less than an hour later, a showered, slickly dressed Beckham sauntered into the RSL locker room and congratulated the new champions, telling him he was envious of the way they played together and that they were a deserving champion.
"We've really bought into 'the star is the team' here in Salt Lake," said captain Kyle Beckerman. "You buy into things, but you don't really know what the result's going to be at the end of the year. But we had to believe it, even though it might not have worked out for us. But it sure did."
Last Friday night, Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts addressed his team at dinner, telling them how empty a feeling it was 15 years ago when the favored New York Knicks -- of whom he was team president at the time -- blew their chance to win the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets.
"Opportunities to win a championship don't come around often," he told the Salt Lakers. "Make the most of this, because you never know when you'll be back."
And RSL's players obliged the guy who signs their checks. Come Monday morning, Salt Lake City can wake up knowing its pro soccer team made it something its own heroes, Karl Malone and John Stockton, never could: a champion. At long last.