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For Real Salt Lake it was a November to Remember

The Cup is ours
The Cup is ours

So I am going to include the last week of October in my November to Remember, because the last 7 days of October really set the tone for what was going to happen.  The display of heart and desire that propelled RSL to the Cup, was incredible when almost everyone (including many RSL fans) wrote them off with a month left in the MLS season but with a regular season ending win over Colorado to claim the Rocky Mountain Cup put RSL into the position to take advantage of other teams failing to claim the spot.  It was that dominating 3-0 win at home that showed that while RSL couldn't control their own destiny in October they were going to do what they could.

When the smoke of the final weekend cleared RSL was left standing but very few considered them worth mentioning, I mean it was all about Columbus the 2008 Cup Champions and the 2009 Supporter Shield winner and their attempt to repeat.  Some of that changed as RSL's Robbie Findley found a way to slot in a Yura Movsisyan cross with just minutes left in the first leg to take a 1-0 lead as they won the first leg of their playoff match up, but with the best home record in MLS that wasn't much of a surprise.  What happened next, well that is where the real magic begins. 

Still few local and national pundits gave RSL much of a chance as they had to go to Columbus, a place they had never won.  Oh it got worse as Columbus went up two goals and looked to end the half with a comfortable lead, but then it was that "never say die" attitude that RSL showed at home (not so much on the road) which finally started to show itself outside of the confines of Rio Tinto Stadium.  The rest of the MLS and anyone else paying attention was going to get a lesson in what this RSL side was capable of.  It came in the form of a visually confusing series of passes that ended up with Javi having the ball inside the Crew box and he simply put it past Hesmer and the series was tied back at 2-2.  

Then in first half stoppage time a bizarre play as Frankie Hejduk took down Espindola in the penalty area gave RSL a chance to even the match and take the series lead back and on the Robbie Findley PK they did just that.  The second half of the match was strange as it seemed like both sides were playing in sand as I thought the pace of the match slowed down as RSL attacked more slowly and Columbus just looked shocked.  When Andy Williams repeated the CBS freekick goal of the first half that bounced in without anyone touching it, I think the Crew's collective team and fan heart broke and it was all over as they knew there was no way back.  So much for the pundits who seemed to blame the Crew coaching decisions as much for the loss as they did giving RSL any credit.

Then came the Fire, and oh how clear it was to everyone that there was no way RSL could go to Toyota Park and win, I mean after all the Fire fans were finally going to show up and they did.  A nice display of flares wasn't enough to help their team on to victory.  Go back and re-watch the 120 minutes of action and you will come away with the feeling that RSL was the better side, despite some stupid fouls and yellow cards on both sides, it was RSL with the more creative chances, the better defense and in the second half and extra time with the heart to battle on.  In the end all the fanfare and the picks for Chicago to move on for the superstar match up of Blanco vs. Beckham came to naught as RSL's Ned Grabavoy put the winning PK shot past Busch and RSL was on their way to Seattle.

Oh how "the don" must have been cursing that Nick Rimando, short in stature but huge in talent, was able to make such great saves, or that after Fabi had missed his PK that the Fire couldn't prevail, now he would have to watch the MFT (most favored team) play against lowly RSL, no marquee match-up of DP's instead a team made up by wise moves by head coach Jason Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey would go up against the stacked LA Galaxy.  

Funny how things happen, but for the 4th time in the past 4 weeks I kept getting asked did RSL really have a chance?  I expected that from outsiders, those Sounder fans who are so great that they know little beyond the Fred's and Kellar, but I didn't expect it from RSL fans but again too little faith.  Too much hype the other way, after all  when the local media made a bigger issue of RSL's 12 regular season losses than their 3 straight playoff match wins, what is a fan to expect when all they hear is how they will fail.  Heck it was expected by RSL fans in the first couple years but after last years playoff run and missing out on the Cup match by several shots off the posts.

When I arrived in Seattle and talked with a few players and staff members I could tell that the team was not going to be denied their chance and would battle like they had over the last month.  When I heard from players and staff that everywhere they went in Seattle they would run into RSL fans proudly wearing their jerseys and scarves, I knew that it meant a lot to them to have so many people make the trip up to support them.  But here was a team with just a single player with a MLS Cup championship in their past, and a lot of guys making their debut on the "big stage", there was a bit of lingering fear that nerves might get the best of some of the guys.  Jason, Kyle, and Nick all seemed to play a big role in calming the team down and focusing on business.  

It was funny that even here at the leagues premier match that LA still thought they were above the rules, as they held media in a tunnel during their final practice and refused to abide by the leagues rules that the last 15 minutes be open.  I am sure there was no fine for Bruce, I mean he is above the league isn't he?  Funny how so many just accepted it as Bruce being Bruce, but imagine the uproar if Jason had acted that way?  Perhaps nothing was a more true telling of the events than how the high and mighty LA Galaxy chose their hotel first and RSL was left the scraps, but unseen to many was the fact that RSL owner Dave Checketts flew in family members of the team to be there for this special moment, funny how the media missed that fact or how the multi-billion dollar AEG had left that up to players to work out on their own.  It was that attitude that I think was the difference in the match, LA expected to win, RSL came out to fight to win.  LA simply thought this a celebration of Beckham, Donovan, Ricketts, and the rest of their misfit toys, while RSL saw a chance to make history.

The first half was tough as LA was more composed and looked confident in their style of play, a defensive letdown and great passes by both Beck's and Landycake's lead to their first half goal.  I am sure many thought that RSL would fold and the rout would be on, but those would be people who missed the month of November and this is a very different RSL squad.  In fact that goal simply woke RSL up and for the rest of the match and extra time they were the better team, they passed better, took more shots, they played better defense and they kept LA on their heels until Robbie Findley found the equalizer midway of the second half.  LA simply looked like they were holding on for life and limb at that point and after the first 90 minutes were up I think they counted themselves lucky to still be in the match.  

During extra time it sure appeared that LA was looking for something or someone to intervene on their behalf and give them a PK or a quality free kick that Beck's could finish off and be the star of the day as so many thought he would be.  Nope it wasn't going to happen as RSL continued the pressure in the extra 30 minutes and LA had to dodge a number of potential bullets during the extra minutes that lead up to the dreaded PK's.  For RSL fans it was this moment as the 120 minutes of playing time was up, that they knew they would win the Cup.  Here was a backup LA keeper going against "Mr. PK stopper"  Nick Rimando, but who would have imagined the extra drama of both team captains missing their shots and that a journeyman defender would be the difference between winning and going home empty handed.  It was Robbie Russell, who stepped up and made the shot that finalized the RSL season and capped a November to Remember.

The joy in the journey of the final month was huge for RSL fans, from those who braved cold and holidays to watch the only playoff game at  home this year, to the handfuls that traveled to Columbus and Chicago, all ending with thousands of RSL fans stuck in horrible seats in the upper deck of a NFL stadium watching their team capture the leagues highest honor 2009 MLS CUP CHAMPIONS.  Indeed it was a November to Remember for RSL fans.