Star power? Who needs it? After sneaking into the postseason, ragged Real Salt Lake turned into giant killers, completing an improbable playoff run by toppling the mighty Galaxy of Beckham and Donovan to win their first MLS Cup
This is an article from the Nov. 30, 2009 issue
Nick Rimando has a secret. Before he faces a penalty kick as the goalkeeper for Real Salt Lake, Rimando steps deep inside his own net, the better to make the goal seem smaller when he takes his position on the line. Then he'll study the shooter 12 yards away like a poker player probing for the fateful tell. "It's something the players show me," Rimando says of their giveaways. A twitch? A sidelong glance? A hip swivel at the last second? "I can't tell you," he explains. "I'll be in these situations again, so I can't give too much away. Then the secret's out."
Whatever the secret is, it's a precious gift, one that Real Salt Lake used to win its first MLS Cup final on Sunday at Seattle's Qwest Field, upsetting the Los Angeles Galaxy in a dramatic 5--4 penalty-kick shootout following 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time that had ended in a 1--1 tie. Not only did the blue-clad Rimando explode off his line like a 5'9" SuperSmurf to save penalties by L.A.'s Edson Buddle and Jovan Kirovski, but he also won a high-stakes mental battle with Galaxy star Landon Donovan, who launched his spot kick over the crossbar. "A lot of goalkeepers go in and think the shooter has the advantage," Rimando said afterward. "I go in thinking I'm going to save it."
It was that kind of confidence that pushed RSL to an unexpected title. Even though the team barely squeaked into the postseason with an 11-12-7 record (the worst of the eight playoff teams), it pulled off consecutive upsets against glitzier favorites, eliminating top-seeded Columbus (and Argentine maestro Guillermo Barros Schelotto), powerful Chicago (and Mexican star Cuauhtémoc Blanco) and Western Conference champion Los Angeles, which featured the Dr. Phil--worthy reconciliation story of Donovan and David Beckham. And for anyone who questioned whether a sub-.500 regular-season team should be allowed to win a championship, RSL midfielder Clint Mathis had a tidy response. "You want me to tell 'em what I really think? F--- 'em," said the soccer folk hero known as Cletus, who was holding a cold Budweiser and wearing only a towel in the victorious locker room. "I think we were the better team in every game."
Salt Lake City's first professional sports title since the ABA's 1970--71 Utah Stars was the culmination of a rescue project that began in 2007, when RSL owner Dave Checketts made two risky hires of unproven Duke alums, tapping coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey. Kreis, 36, scored 108 goals for Dallas and Salt Lake in 12 MLS seasons, but he had never coached before stepping directly from the playing field into a sideline suit and tie. A former journeyman MLS goalkeeper, the 36-year-old Lagerwey parlayed a part-time gig as a Jim Bouton--style columnist for SI.com into a TV commentary position for D.C. United (signature catchphrase: "Sweet creamery butter"), earned a law degree and met Checketts while doing the legal work on his purchase of the St. Louis Blues.
Kreis and Lagerwey reached the NCAA College Cup while playing together at Duke in the early '90s and had won the '97 U.S. Open Cup with Dallas, and they shared a philosophy on how to build an MLS winner. THE TEAM IS THE STAR, reads a sign in Real's home locker room, and it reflects their strategy of spreading their league-mandated $2.315 million roster budget among several cohesive players instead of buying a big-name headliner. Salt Lake targeted North American players who'd competed in the cauldron of Europe, landing Mathis, midfielder Will Johnson and defenders Nat Borchers and Robbie Russell (who scored the winning penalty on Sunday). The team also acquired talented mid-level veterans (such as midfielders Javier Morales and Andy Williams) and a potpourri of young players with potential, including midfielder Kyle Beckerman and forwards Yura Movsisyan and Robbie Findley (RSL's breakout scorer in '09, whose 64th-minute strike against the Galaxy on Sunday canceled out Mike Magee's 41st-minute opening goal).
Salt Lake was maddeningly inconsistent this season, combining explosive displays (six goals in the second half against New England on April 25) with inexplicable form (an eight-game winless streak immediately thereafter). But Kreis took advantage of an unusual 17-day stretch between games late in the season and put the team through what Lagerwey called "a second preseason." RSL was a different team from that point forward. "Jason's the most competitive guy I've ever met, and that's really saying something," said Checketts, the former New York Knicks president, who compares Kreis with Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy. Checketts knows that as MLS's youngest title-winning coach, Kreis has the potential for greatness. "I love winning championships," Checketts told him after Sunday's trophy ceremony. "Now let's go build a dynasty together."
For one night, though, Cup final MVP Nick Rimando was firmly planted in the present, holding his 20-month-old son, Jett, on the podium and in the locker room. RSL's victory was Rimando's second league title (he won one with D.C. in 2004), which gave him some equality in his own home: His wife, Jacqui Little Rimando, won two championships herself as a player in the old WUSA. "Now I'm caught up with her," Nick said proudly. Good things come in pairs: Two married soccer players, two titles each and (with a due date of Dec. 15) a second Rimando baby on the way. Maybe one of these days, in a quiet moment by the crib, Papa will share his secret for stopping penalties.
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Jonah Freedman and Greg Lalas wrap up the 2009 MLS season at SI.com/bonus