Okay Portland fans. In just over a year, the Timbers will officially join MLS. If you want to match the passion and success they’ve had in Seattle, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Sunday night, I headed north for the MLS Cup, as the LA Galaxy took on Real Salt Lake for the league’s championship. A crowd of 46,011 turned out for the match, up from Qwest Field’s normal soccer capacity of 32,000. Staff at the game told me that if the Seattle Sounders had made it to the Cup, the entire stadium would have been sold out. I’m sure they’re right.
Most of the crowd was decked out in their Sounders gear, and stood for all of the nearly 3-hours worth of action. I have no doubt that Timbers fans can match this type of passion, but it will be tough.
In the press box, I ended up sitting next to two Sounders employees. I was struck with the pride they have in their organization, not just for the on-the-field success, but for the level of fan support and engagement they’ve received. And trust me, outside of Portland, there’s no group more excited to see the Timbers come to MLS than the folks in Seattle (though one person did admit to being a bit leery of Timber Joey and his chainsaw).
As for the game itself, while I’ve never claimed to be the biggest soccer fan, this one had my attention throughout. Real Salt Lake came in as the quintessential underdog. After winning only 11 games in the regular season, they beat both Columbus and Chicago in the playoffs to come into the title match. LA was lead by league MVP Landon Donovan and some guy named David Beckham (it seemed like every woman I know wanted me to take his picture. I didn’t).
LA controlled things early, pushing the attack. It seemed like Salt Lake’s Cinderella run had come to an end when Mike Magee put into the back of the net in the 41st minute of the first half (assists came from the previously mentioned Beckham and Donovan).
But things changed in the second half. Salt Lake was more aggressive on offense (and ended up with more shots on goal for the game). Former Oregon State star Robbie Findley tied things up by scoring on a rebound shot. There was a genuine sense that Salt Lake had really grabbed the momentum. When it came time to vote for the game’s MVP, I voted for Findley, because of the way he turned the game with this play (and for his play the entire game).
This game featured six former Portland Timbers, none who played a bigger role than LA’s Josh Saunders. Starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts broke his hand, and eventually had to come out of the match, pressing Saunders into action. This marked the first time a goalkeeper had ever been subbed for in the MLS Cup. Saunders rose to the occasion, and would have earned my MVP vote if the game had turned out differently.
Neither team managed to score again, and we went to overtime. This was the sixth OT match in MLS Cup history. LA has played in 5 of those games. After another 30 minutes of action, we were still tied at 1-1, meaning penalty kicks (only the second time in MLS Cup history).
Things got really intense here. In the first shootout round (there are 5) David Beckham started things for LA, getting a goal. He was matched by Salt Lake’s Clint Mathis. The teams traded goals in round 2, and misses in round 3.
It got really interesting in round 4, when Landon Donovan COMPLETELY missed his shot, shooting above the crossbar. Salt Lake’s Ned Grabavoy made his goal, and we could all smell upset.
In round 5, Mike Magee made his shot for LA. All Andy Williams needed to do was score his, and Salt Lake had the championship. But Josh Saunders came up with a great save, and we were tied after 5 rounds, meaning EXTRA penalty kicks, and I’m pretty sure everybody in the stadium had stopped whatever they were doing to watch this.
The proverbial pins and needles got sharper as both teams scored goals in round 6. It was just going to take one shot or one save.
The save came in Round 7, as Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando stopped LA’s Edson Buddle.
For Salt Lake, a win came down to defenseman Robbie Russell. For LA, a chance to keep the game going came down to backup goalie Josh Saunders.
Russell went to make the KICK. Saunders made his dive, but he guessed WRONG. Russells’s shot hit the back of the net, and he dropped to his knees. Cinderella LIVES!!! REAL SALT LAKE is your 2009 champion.
I left Qwest Field far more excited to see the MLS in Portland than I had been before entering the stadium. 2011, here we come.