The fairy-tale ending to the MLS season would, I suppose, have seen the grand resurgence of Los Angeles Galaxy, with the redoubtable David Beckham leading them to the title.
But fairy tales don’t always have happy endings – and there was none for Beckham and Galaxy as underdogs Real Salt Lake stole their thunder by winning 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the MLS Cup Final in Seattle.
Galaxy’s progress to the Final had not been particularly glittering. The football they played was decidedly ordinary, even though this was a team containing MLS’ two superstars: Beckham and Landon Donovan.
Galaxy struggled to get past Chivas USA in the play-offs, winning 3-2 on aggregate, and then won a tedious semi-final 2-0 against Houston Dynamo with another pedestrian display.
But this was somehow predictable. New coach Bruce Arena had looked at last term’s Galaxy team – who didn’t even get into the play-offs – and seen that they scored a lot of goals (a league-leading 55 in 30 games) but was more concerned at the 62 they conceded. So defence became a priority and their game duly suffered. A season record of 12 wins, 12 draws and six defeats was good enough to top the Western Conference and make the play-offs. But while Galaxy were labouring their way to the Final, over in the Eastern Conference surprising things were happening.
Real Salt Lake, the last team to qualify for the play-offs, and the team with the worst record – they had 11 wins, seven draws and 12 defeats – were making mincemeat of the form book and the opposition.
Columbus, the reigning champions, and with the best regular-season record, were sent packing on home turf as RSL won 3-2. A shoot-out win over Chicago Fire after a 0-0 draw followed and, against all the odds and predictions, RSL were on their way to Seattle, where much-favoured Galaxy awaited.
Even so, things were not going well for Galaxy as Beckham was reported to be nursing an ankle injury and would have to play in pain or with cortisone injections – or both.
The Seattle fans – who had set MLS attendance records throughout the season with an average crowd of more than 30,000 – outdid themselves as 46,011 turned out for the MLS gala occasion.
Beckham was duly featured in television close-ups, grimacing and wincing, but his first meaningful action was a spiteful first-half challenge on RSL’s Javier Morales. After a couple of minutes of hobbling about, Morales was forced off, leaving RSL without their key playmaker.
Twenty minutes later, Galaxy took the lead with a goal from Mike Magee following an exchange of passes between Donovan and Beckham.
The fear now was that Galaxy would turn on its vaunted defence and grind out another 1-0 win – they had pulled off seven of those during the season. But that didn’t happen, mostly because RSL refused to allow it.
The second half belonged to RSL, who played exuberantly as Galaxy faded and equalised deservedly after 63 minutes when Robbie Findley slammed home a loose ball. Extra time could not separate the sides and penalties were needed for only the second time in 19 MLS Finals.
A haggard-looking Beckham took the first kick and scored, but after 12 more kicks – one of which was blasted way over the bar by Donovan – RSL full-back Robbie Russell sealed it.
RSL’s goalkeeper Nick Rimando was named man of the match for his two shoot-out saves, but the award should surely have gone to captain Kyle Beckerman, who had led by example throughout the 120 minutes.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
(Los Angeles Galaxy)
Helped Galaxy to their first MLS Cup Final appearance since 2005, not to mention being part of the national side that reached the Final of the Confederations Cup and qualified for the 2010 World Cup finals.
COACH OF THE SEASON
Jason Kreis (Real Salt Lake)
The MLS gave Galaxy’s Bruce Arena its coach of the year award, but a more deserving recipient would have been American youngster Kreis who, in only his second year as full-time coach, took RSL from perennial no-hopers to MLS champions.
NEWCOMER OF THE SEASON
(Los Angeles Galaxy)
Formed a steady centre-back pairing with Gregg Berhalter and started all 30 games for a Galaxy defence that went from being the worst in the MLS to one of the best.