Another penalty kick?!? What is going on? How can it be possible that this match continues to stretch on? Everything is frozen: The players, the fans, the ground, this moment in time. The entire season, of both Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC, are reduced to these few seconds, leading up to yet another penalty kick to decide the winner of the MLS Cup. What is going on?
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It’s March. Cold, blustery March. College basketball is getting into tournament mode, baseball brings warmth and hope with Spring Training, and yet I have something else to watch. Major League Soccer is starting, and for the first time in my entire life, I’ve decided I want to watch non-international soccer.
Sports in general have a standard path. Players follow a course that takes them from high school to college, or academy, and then to the professional levels. In soccer, it goes one step further: the international level. Players no longer play for money, they play for honor and pride. An entire country complies a team of their best players – whether it’s the cover athlete for FIFA, or a former tour guide — to represent their nation. There are people that corrupt the highest level of soccer, but the idea of international soccer is one of the most amazing concepts to me as a sports fan.
Waiting for international teams to play twice every other month, or in a tournament once every four years, gets monotonous. I can’t wait that long. America has its own league, why not watch that?
First step when watching any new sport is to pick a team to follow, it gives reference and context to the tale being told. I grew up near St. Louis, MO, a land of baseball love, and a lack of a MLS team. The next two closest are either the Chicago Fire or Sporting Kansas City. I don’t know anything about the history of either team, or the league for that matter, so either pick would be as fresh a start as possible.
My love of the St. Louis Cardinals naturally makes the idea of following a Chicago-based team a rotten counterpoint to my fandom. So Sporting, you get my attention until I really pick a favorite team.
Fast-forward a few months. I’m no longer casually following the Kansas City team, I’m entranced by their aggressive style of their play. I’ve found my favorite team.
This blog is devoted to covering the entire MLS. I’m supposed to be objective and fair to every team in the league. But how often does your favorite team win the championship? Therefore — doing my duty as a fan with a blog — I’m going to tell you the tale of how the Cup was won with a strictly midwest point-of-view.
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So, now I sit in front of the TV, on the literal edge of my seat, awaiting the tenth extra time penalty kick of an exciting, brutal MLS Cup Final. It’s been a 1-1 game filled with mistakes from both teams involved, but its back and forth, nonstop, unrelenting, and now extending past 120 minutes.
The match started with a wind chill somewhere in the single digits. It is the coldest game in MLS history. The ground is frozen solid, patches of ice forming all over the place, and yet the players have no choice but to persevere. Due to odd scheduling, neither team played since a month ago. The first 20 minutes or so produce undisciplined hard-nosed football, with players plowing each other over even RSL’s Nat Borchers taking a frozen ball to the face.
RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando is playing better than anyone else on the field in the first half. He makes a fantastic diving block to stop a very well aimed ball which was headed for the net.
Rimando and SKC’s Jimmy Nielsen are two of the best goalkeepers playing in America, but Nielsen looked slow and old throughout the majority of the game. In the 28th minute, Nielsen tried to punch the ball away, but only sent it straight up in the air. RSL’s Robbie Findley took an angled shot at a goal, but the post knocked it away.
Someone should write a book titled “Jimmy and the Post”. It would tell the story of a man who befriends a goalpost, and all throughout the book Jimmy keeps getting himself in trouble only for the Post to bail him out again and again.
Honestly, the Post was one of the most complete players on the field. It used all three of its sides to prevent the score from making major swings in Real Salt Lake’s favor. If it was up to me, the Post wins the award for Player of the Game.
In the 52nd minute, RSL puts the first point on the board. Kyle Beckerman makes a one-touch no-look beauty of a pass to Alvaro Saborio, who makes a shot from just outside the penalty box. Goal, 0-1.
Sporting centerback Aurelein Collin is like a comic book character. He’s big, bald, and brash. He owns the 2nd most fouls committed on the team that led the MLS in fouls. Collin is a large French bull charging in, taking people off their feet just for being in his way — it doesn’t even matter if they have the ball. His playing style can best be summed up by this gif…
All that brazen force can come back to haunt Sporting though and it very nearly lost them the Cup. In the 35th minute, Collin was given a yellow card. That’s not that big of a problem, it’s just a warning, no big deal. But in the 69th minute, Collin made a feet-first tackle on Robbie Findley, and it was just a little too harsh. Luckily, the referee didn’t pull out the card. Two yellows = one red. One red = ten men on the field. The biggest loss of that non-call wouldn’t be playing without one man, it would have been the loss of Collin himself.
A few minutes later, Graham Zusi sends a corner kick flying towards the front of the net. Amongst the scrum in the box, a round, shiny, glorious bald head emerges in time to blast the ball into the back of the net. Aurelien Collin has just tied up the game, 1-1.
The game goes into extra time. Sporting receives multiple chances at goals but they just aren’t able to capitalize. Soccer has this great way of happening in a moments notice. The ball can go from one end of the field to the back of the other goal in less than 20 seconds. Don’t blink, don’t go to the bathroom, just shut up and watch. At this point in the game, I was tense. Any given second could bring gloom or glory. Geez.
When the game went into penalty kicks, it got worse. The game had stretched for so long that the chips I was eating had disappeared and I had nothing else to preoccupy myself with. I was at the mercy of drama, hanging on the instant occurrence of it all. It’s that moment in sports that everyone hopes for, but we rarely actually find.
It went to the tenth round of penalties. Collin steps up to the line, shooting a ball towards the right. Rimando dives, but it’s just out of his reach. The Post thinks about getting in the way, but its tired and cold, and ready for this whole ordeal to be over. The Post allows the ball to bounce into the net. Kansas City is up.
Real Salt Lake has one chance to equalize the score. Defender Lovel Palmer fires directly at the net. Nielsen dives to the right, incorrectly guessing where Palmer will send it. The ball flies towards the goal. My breath is not in my lungs. But the Post has seen enough. The Post sends the ball ricochetting into the night. Sporting Park goes into hysterics.
In a small, far away living room, I stood with my hands in the air and a smile on my face. I never would have thought that the team I picked as my entry into the MLS would provide such a moment. It was a sport I hardly cared about a few years ago, and now the hoisted Cup couldn’t be more satisfying.
Collin is named MVP, an award he wouldn’t receive but for one missed call. Nielsen grins and spray paints a new date under the last one of 2000. As for me, I didn’t know what to do now that soccer is over.
I can’t wait for March.