Salt Lake's MLS title brings hope to sporting underdogs everywhere
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 (
And when defender
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,
"We like being the underdog," said RSL goalkeeper
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,
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
"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
Last Friday night, Salt Lake owner
"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,