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Real Salt Lake’s fairy tale run to the 2009 MLS Cup

RSL brought home Utah’s first championship trophy in nearly 40 years, and they did it when nobody expected.

MLS Cup - Los Angeles Galaxy v Real Salt Lake Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Sometimes the sweetest victories come when just about everyone has written you off. That’s how Real Salt Lake earned their first-ever MLS Cup Championship title — against all odds after they just narrowly squeaked their way into the playoffs.

Playoffs, here we come

Sitting in sixth place — one spot outside of the playoff race — going into the final match day of the 2009 season, the claret-and-cobalt hosted their Rocky Mountain rivals Colorado Rapids, who held the fifth-place spot and were all but set to make a playoff run.

RSL had different plans, though, and thanks to two goals from Robbie Findley and a third from Yura Movsisyan, the Royals secured not only a 3-0 win, but the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs for the second year in a row.

Oh, and the Rapids? No biggie — this was also the second year in a row they’d been knocked out of a playoff spot by RSL on the last day of the season. What a time to be a soccer fan in Salt Lake City!

Eastern Conference bracket… wait — what?

Back then, MLS hadn’t quite figured out the final format for conference-based qualification that they have today. Instead of the top teams from each conference advancing to the playoffs, they took the top eight from the overall league table and split them into conferences that way.

Because of this, RSL ended up as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference (eighth overall) since the East only offered up three teams who qualified.

Rank Team Pts GP W L T GF GA GD
Rank Team Pts GP W L T GF GA GD
1 Columbus Crew 49 30 13 7 10 41 31 10
2 LA Galaxy 48 30 12 6 12 36 31 5
3 Houston Dynamo 48 30 13 8 9 39 29 10
4 Seattle Sounders FC 47 30 12 7 11 38 29 9
5 Chicago Fire 45 30 11 7 12 39 34 5
6 Chivas USA 45 30 13 11 6 34 31 3
7 New England Revolution 42 30 11 10 9 33 37 −4
8 Real Salt Lake 40 30 11 12 7 43 35 8
9 Colorado Rapids 40 30 10 10 10 42 38 4
10 D.C. United 40 30 9 8 13 43 44 −1
11 FC Dallas 39 30 11 13 6 50 47 3
12 Toronto FC 39 30 10 11 9 37 46 −9
13 Kansas City Wizards 33 30 8 13 9 33 42 −9
14 San Jose Earthquakes 30 30 7 14 9 36 50 −14
15 New York Red Bulls 21 30 5 19 6 27 47 −20

Honestly, the mountain that lied ahead of them seemed insurmountable, even to many of us fans.

Eastern Conference semifinals: Columbus Crew

First up was the Supporters’ Shield winner Columbus Crew. This team looked nothing like the low-ranked Crew of 2016. They were riding high off their 2008 MLS Cup Championship and looking to defend that title for another year. Their roster riddled with household names like Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Chad Marshall, Robbie Rogers, and Brian Carroll to name a few, the black-and-gold were favorites heading into the tournament.

Kreis and Co. hosted the Crew for the first leg, and while RSL struggled to keep possession and create chances, they managed to pull it off in a classic fashion in the dying minutes.

Movsisyan sent a ball in almost from the touchline which found Robbie Findley in behind the defense on the near post and was able to tap it in to secure a 1-0 win.

Heading to Columbus, leg two didn’t start out so well for Salt Lake as they found themselves down 2-0 within 35 minutes thanks to a pair of goals from Schelotto. Our boys didn’t give up, though, and found a way to claw back and score three unanswered goals. Morales and Findley started it off with a goal each, while Andy Williams solidified the victory with a 74th-minute goal off a set piece.

The game would end 3-2, and RSL advanced to the Conference Finals on a 4-2 aggregate.

Eastern Conference finals: Chicago Fire

Eastern Conference Championship - Real Salt Lake v Chicago Fire Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s honestly a little weird to think back to when teams like the Chicago Fire were a formidable opponent — but they were no joke. With players like Logan Pause, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Brian McBride, C.J. Brown, Marco Pappa, and Baggio Husidic, they were a force to be reckoned with.

The Fire finished second in the East (fifth overall), and had advanced to the Conference Finals by way of a 3-2 aggregate victory over the New England Revolution.

Both teams one game away from an MLS Cup Final appearance, Chicago hosted this one-legged affair at Toyota Park on November 14, 2009. After a grueling and scoreless 120 minutes of regulation and overtime had expired, this one was going into a penalty shootout.

Rimando did what he does, and saved three of Chicago’s seven penalties, while Ned Grabavoy buried the final kick to give RSL a 5-4 PK victory, and send the club to their first-ever MLS Cup Championship.

MLS Cup Final: Los Angeles Galaxy

For a team that struggled so much on the road — 2-11-2 in the regular season — RSL sure had a knack for pulling off stunning postseason road victories and silencing home crowds in both Columbus and Chicago. RSL was determined to make that ring true for one more game as they rode into the title match on a high.

Though the Galaxy were the opponent, the game was played at the home of the first-year Seattle Sounders at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington in front of a crowd of some 46,000. LA finished first in the West (second overall) and had defeated Chivas USA in the Conference Semifinals and the Houston Dynamo in the Conference Finals.

The star-studded side boasted big names such as David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, Edson Buddle, and Mike Magee, as well as former RSL men Dema Kovalenko and Alecko Eskandarian.

Like the two rounds before, RSL was by far the underdog on paper, holding fast to its “Team is the Star” mantra while having already knocked off two teams with high-profile designated players.

Just 14 minutes into the match, Salt Lake fans’ worst nightmare came true as Javier Morales came off with a knock thanks to a tackle from Beckham. Javi was replaced by veteran Clint Mathis and the team pressed onward.

It went from bad to worse as LA opened the scoring in the 41st minute when Donovan found Mike Magee in behind the RSL defense for an easy tap-in. On top of that, stalwart midfielder Will Johnson was taken off at halftime due to illness and replaced by Ned Grabavoy.

While we’ll never truly know what golden words of wisdom Jason Kreis unleashed in that locker room during halftime, it definitely worked because RSL came out re-energized and ready to attack in the second half.

After several close calls in RSL’s attacking third, Robbie Findley found the equalizer in the 64th minute when the ball fell to his feet after Movsisyan’s shot was blocked. Findley found himself with a gaping hole on the left side of the goal and sent his left-footed shot home to tie the game 1-1.

After several more chances over the rest of regulation, including seven minutes of stoppage time, Real Salt Lake’s fate would once again be determined by a penalty shootout.

MLS Cup - Los Angeles Galaxy v Real Salt Lake Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Rimando, yet again, did what he does best and saved two penalties, setting up Robbie Russell to send home the winning PK in the seventh round, giving Real Salt Lake its first-ever MLS Cup title, and giving Utah its first professional championship trophy in 38 years — last achieved by the 1971 ABA champions Utah Stars.

I think it’s safe to say that none of us will ever forget that incredible 2009 run. We won’t forget where we were or how loud we screamed when Russell buried his winning PK. We certainly won’t forget watching Landon Donovan send his PK sailing high over the crossbar.

To Kyle and Javi, Nick and Nat, Yura, Fabian, Robbie, Will, Ned, Andy, Clint, and the rest of the 2009 squad — we salute you.

Full match highlights: