Welcome to the RSL Cup blog

I've been a fan of Real Salt Lake since it joined MLS and took to the field in 2005, and I've been a fan of MLS since it began in 1996. Lately however I've started to worry about the path MLS is taking and the poor decisions they are making that in my mind threaten the growth of soccer as a whole in the US. (see "Columbus conspiracy" section) Soccer in America will grow only when we have a vibrant and diverse minor league system, something that MLS seems to be smothering at the moment. (see "American soccer wars" section) Let's keep our eyes on the situation and hope for the best, a future where grass-roots soccer and the minor leagues can not only exist but flourish, as well as where the contributions and history of the league's early clubs are appreciated and preserved.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jest for Kicks

(by Duncan Moench cityweekly.com (written sometime in 2005))

More than a decade has passed since international soccer’s highest competition was held in football stadiums across America. After the 1994 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl ended in a 0-0 tie, journalists yawned and reiterated what they had surmised for decades'soccer would never take hold in the land of the free and impatient. In a drive-through culture where people can’t wait 10 minutes for a hamburger, how are they going to wait more than 15 minutes for a point to be scored?

However, in the land of Saints and Salt nearly 18,000 fans routinely show up every 10 days to watch professional soccer matches at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium, the start-up home of Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake.

A sport based on unity, subtlety and collective intensity just won’t catch on in America’s hyper-individualist culture, critics said. Yet, Salt Lake City fans show up to watch a team most experts dub among the world’s sixth-tier (at best) professional soccer circuit. And they watch in a stadium designed for football.

When the U.S. national squad played a key World Cup qualifier match against Costa Rica earlier this summer, more than 40,000 red-blooded Utahns cheered their hearts out for the home team. It was a rarity in international competition, even at matches held on U.S. soil. Mainstays of the national squad repeatedly talked about how the crowd was one of the best they’d ever witnessed.

This March, state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsored a bill effectively banning use of state tax money to help fund RSL’s new soccer stadium. Days later he awoke to find the message “YOU HAVE DECLARED WAR” scrawled in chalk on his home’s driveway. This took place more than a month before RSL played even one official game.

How has soccer frenzy taken hold in a city where Wonder Bread has a major presence?

Soccer isn’t supposed to be American, and few states are thought of as more American than Utah. Is RSL’s marketing strategy responsible for the franchise’s success? Or did the team walk into a ready-made soccer culture as aberrant to the rest of America as polygamist clans? The best way to answer these questions is to look at the stories of the businessmen who brought the team here, the management they hired, and the fans who already plan their lives around RSL games with churchlike devotion but lie outside the demographic RSL has targeted so carefully, and in such a sanitized fashion.

Six blocks west of Rice-Eccles Stadium a youth soccer coach sets up two large red, blue and yellow banners in front of his modest brick duplex. Coach Josh Dennis is in his late 20s. He has short white hair, a sun-etched face, and chew in his mouth. He and a handful of other youth soccer coaches bought RSL season tickets the moment they went on sale last October.

If not for the thick black stripes of a Newcastle United jersey tucked into his khaki shorts, Dennis’ white lamb chops might remind you of someone who drives with a gun rack and throws horseshoes in his back yard. Actually, Dennis does throw horseshoes in his front yard now and then. But given the three youth soccer teams he coaches, he has little time for it.

Dennis and a handful of fellow RSL season ticket holders call themselves “The Jesters”'a derisive counter to the group of RSL fans known as “The Loyalists.” Striving to establish the first traditions of Salt Lake City soccer fandom, and even a version of Salt Lake City soccer hooliganism, The Jesters see The Loyalists as rivals.

The Loyalists have RSL management’s official blessing, a Website for discounts on parking and ticket packages and are even registered as a legal nonprofit group. The Loyalists started with seven or eight hard-core, middle-aged fans that religiously attended the games of the Utah Blitzz, RSL’s minor league predecessor. The group began coordinating with RSL officials as early as last fall in an effort to construct a presentable group of soccer fanatics that could display loud (but polite) enthusiasm for their club.

The group has bylaws and a code of conduct stating that their mission is to “make the atmosphere as family friendly as possible.” The code of conduct stipulates no foul or offensive language, no consumption of alcohol and encourages swift reporting of anyone who throws objects onto the field or violates any of Rice-Eccles’ rules (which prohibit consumption of alcohol) so they can be “promptly ejected.”

All this breaks with the European and Latin American tradition of fanatical soccer supporters, being as much a menace as they are a blessing to the clubs they “support.” Dennis and the Jesters find The Loyalists’ code of conduct particularly offensive, but also believe in the importance of creating their own soccer traditions, rather than complying with cookie-cutter codes acceptable to RSL management. “We have our own idea of what a soccer fan should be,” Dennis said.

It’s 4:40 p.m. on a recent Saturday. The barbecue in back of Dennis’ brick duplex is cooking steaks, Negro Modelo is chilling in the fridge, and Monterrey vs. Cruz Azul is on the living room TV screen. The big match between RSL and fellow expansion team CD Chivas USA begins at 7:30 p.m. Reggae music creeps through Dennis’ open door out to the front yard where his red-and-blue checkered banner reads “WE ARE REAL” in white, hand-stenciled letters. Above every “e” are four yellow spikes resembling the floppy top of a royal jester’s hat.

Another member of the Jesters, Eric Bliss, pops in through the open doorway. No knock is necessary. A bearded indie-rock guitarist, Bliss co-coaches two Firebirds teams and West High School’s varsity girl’s squad alongside Dennis. Dennis and James Hull, a roommate, chant in unison as Bliss enters:

“WE ARE...”

“REEE- AAL!!”

Bliss puts his fist in the air, bobs up and down with his knees in halfhearted enthusiasm, and quietly announces he has no sticks for the snare drum hanging over his shoulder. Dennis puts a finger to his lip, which bulges with a bit of chew.

“Maybe you could use hangers, man,” Dennis replies in a half-serious, half-mocking tone.

Between bites of steak, Dennis asks if I had heard about the opposing player hit in the head during RSL’s match against the San Jose Earthquakes two weeks earlier.

“I was sitting there watching the fight [between star RSL striker Clint Mathis and Earthquakes defender Craig Weibel] and then I saw the object'and it was really going ... And I was thinking to myself, "It might make it,’ and then ‘CLANK’ right into the dude’s head,” Dennis said. “I think it was a lighter.”

When I laugh at his story, Dennis looks me straight in the eye, and then points the fork for emphasis, “By the way'that’s not cool, we don’t condone any of that.”

The thumping BOPDWAH'BOPDWAH' BOPDWAH reggae beat of “Where is your love?” together with the rhythms of Mexican soccer on the TV is a hypnotically soothing combination, but it fails to prepare The Jesters for their trip to the stadium.

Finishing his steak, Dennis stands and announces with authority that in order to make the 6:45 p.m. train they needed to leave “five minutes ago.” The crew is slacking, Jesters must move out.

Real Salt Lake CEO Dean Howes was convinced pro soccer would succeed in Salt Lake City because it meshed well with the cultural cleanliness The Jesters reject.

“A wholesome family sport'a check. An educated base'a check ... and a growing Hispanic community'if you were building a Franklin scale of factors, we would have hit three stars,” Howes said in a South Temple conference room.

Utah consistently produces the highest percentage of children per capita in America. No surprise. But of those children, more are raised kicking soccer balls than in any other American city. The Utah Youth Soccer Association has an astounding 35,000 players'in addition to 80,000 parents and coaches'involved each year. Salt Lake City’s not known for ethnic diversity, but the valley’s Latino community is sizable. For them, soccer isn’t one of their favorite sports'it’s the sport. The sum of this population equation equals ... lots of young people playing soccer.

Howes’ office belongs to RSL’s sister company, SportsWest Productions. SportsWest is what Howes calls a “syndicator” of college sports broadcasts for most of the Mountain West region and the Western Athletic Conferences (NCAA). Howes worked in New York with Dave Checketts, RSL’s principal owner, at Sports Capital Partners (RSL’s main ownership group) for six years before returning to Salt Lake City to manage SportsWest. One of his primary tasks here was researching the possibility of acquiring rights to a major sports team’s marketing, and the more remote possibility of acquiring a team itself.

“We’d looked at baseball, a number of NBA teams, and NFL, NHL teams'everything except soccer really,” Howes said with a small chuckle.

Since they already controlled a sports media firm, Howes and Checketts sought the ideal “media bundle.” One night, the pair ran into the commissioner of MLS at a banquet and the gears slowly slid into place. Howes spent the next year meeting with Mark Abbott, COO of MLS, whenever he could. Many times the only space available in Abbott’s schedule was at various airports around the country.

Through those brief meetings with Abbott, and what Howes calls “doing diligence on the league,” he became convinced that professional soccer could work in Salt Lake City. Howes admits the MLS is still “the little brother of the other major sports,” but fervently believes there is something that distinguishes soccer from the rest of “the bigs” which soon will lead to its rise, and the others’ eventual decline.

“If you look at all the major sports, they are scrambling to keep every fan they can get, whereas with soccer it has only begun'we’ve just got to figure out how to reach the people out there that are already interested,” Howes said.

There are two keys to American soccer’s eminent ascension: “The baby boomers are on the decline. Their children are just starting to get power ... and money. They didn’t grow up playing soccer, but their kids did, and they appreciate the sport. One of the nice things here is'our fan base is locked in.”

The second key is reaching America’s Hispanic community, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates will grow from 36 million to 102.6 million by 2050. Most of that growth will happen in the West. In Salt Lake County, Latinos currently make up 13.5 percent of the population. Howes believes the best way to reach Latinos'and bring them to MLS games'is to “treat them with respect.” Howes adamantly believes the RSL organization is doing that. Most of RSL’s advertisements and all its promotional literature'as well as game introductions and announcements'are bilingual.

Howes sees a unique soccer culture on display in Rice-Eccles Stadium. Most big city soccer games'like the ones he watched at Giants Stadium'are “totally segregated,” he said. Howe argues that’s not the case in Salt Lake City’s soccer culture.

“At our crowds you’ll have a family of five with their kids sitting right next to the 20-something fan, and three seats over you have a Hispanic family. The crowds are speckled and the fans interact directly,” Howe said. “We don’t have a naïve soccer population. There is great maturity going on.

Similar to the American tradition of bringing poster-board signs to professional basketball games, draping cloth banners behind the goal is a long-lived international tradition. There isn’t a single soccer stadium in Europe or South America not plastered with them. Only six fan-made banners have been displayed at every RSL game so far. Dennis and his friend “Geoff Granger,” who wishes to withhold his real name, made three of them.

Emulating the traditions they saw on the Fox Soccer Channel, Granger and Dennis constructed their banners during nightly get-togethers three weeks before RSL’s April 16 opener.

They spent almost $100 on the banners’ construction, plus an indefinite amount on “coordinating” expenses in “business” meetings at Junior’s Tavern on 500 South. They wanted a message'and lettering scheme'that was “somewhat whimsical, yet bold.”

European banners tend to be straightforward pronouncements through symbols rather than language. They communicate the designer’s identity and sympathies through regional emblems.

In America, the digital gaze of “jumbo-tron” culture has had strange effects on sporting traditions, creating a culture where signs boast quirky, greeting-card-like messages. Most are lighthearted plays on words that attract airtime from arena camera crews: “Deflate Air Jordon” or “The Mailman don’t deliver on Sunday.”

American signs are one-time-use only. European soccer banners are used for years on end. A fan goes to the local stadium expecting to see the same banners nearly every time. Granger and Dennis’ banners are the intersection of these two traditions. Their banner “Fuerza Real,” translated from Spanish, means “Royal Force.” However, its intended meaning is more sarcastic, something along the lines of: “use the force¦ the Royal force.”

Granger hatched the idea for the banner last fall after becoming frustrated with Checkett’s choice to give his franchise an “authentically inauthentic” nickname. The team’s name, Granger said, has “nothing to do with Utah but reflects a great deal upon a state with a bit of an insecurity complex.”

They hope the banner illustrates some of the “strange inconsistencies” reflected in what they see as Checketts’ pandering to “populist Latin iconography.” The “Real” moniker was borrowed from Real Madrid CF, arguably the world’s most successful Hispanic soccer club. According to Granger, the nickname’s populist appeal is contradictory with the “elitist connotations” entailed by royal imagery.

Dennis said it’s important The Jesters create their own individual traditions around RSL games. “Future fans will look to what we do, it’s an opportunity to establish something,” Dennis says. Sports traditions create not only a sense of belonging, he said, but an “ownership over our own experience with the team.”

If RSL officials are smart, they won’t stand in their way.

Before Major League Soccer’s 12th franchise had a name, Howes had a general manager in mind for the top spot at the new Trolley Square-based headquarters.

“I think since the beginning, the league has tried to be family oriented. We realize that so many of our supporters are so young. We have to coordinate around a soccer moms’ mini-van schedule, practically. All that is a natural fit for Utah,” RSL General Manager Steve Pastorino said. “It’s one of the things that made me comfortable that things could work here.”

Pastorino tells the story of how he was approached in the summer of last year to join the then-unnamed MLS franchise based in a city he’d never seen.

“I heard Salt Lake was going to get a team, but I admit I wasn’t even thinking about it. Then Dean Howes called me on a Thursday and said, "Frankly, we know more about you than you know about us. Can you be here on Tuesday for an interview?’' the conversation was about two minutes,” Pastorino said.

After spending the past seven years in Chicago commuting an hour-and-a-half each way to his suburban home, those two minutes were enough. “The place sells itself, seeing the mountains was just about all it took for me,” Pastorino said with a wide smile.

While the mountains might have sold his family on living in Salt Lake City, the “manageable” size of Salt Lake’s market was not so immediately inspiring. "I hope the market is big enough,’” Pastorino remembers thinking when pondering Howes’ offer.

In early 2004, the MLS created a list of 13 prospective cities that might receive an expansion franchise the following season. Houston, Seattle, and even some niche markets like Rochester got a mention. Salt Lake City was not on the list.

“Salt Lake came out of nowhere. It went from no mention, to an announcement ˜Salt Lake’s got a team,’ “ Pastorino recalled. He attributes that transformation to the power of Checkett’s strong connections to the city and his resume as a national sports powerbroker.

One of RSL management’s first tasks was coordinating with the Utah Youth Soccer Association (UYSA), which could bring hordes of children and parents to games. Scott Harward, UYSA’s technical director, has been thrilled with RSL’s interest and believes it gives children inspiration. However, he accepts that RSL’s interest in UYSA is not altruistic. Harward says his organization provides RSL with “access to a great commodity'soccer-crazy moms and dads.

As a Salt Lake City native, Checketts was likely intuitively aware of the area’s extensive soccer community. Pastorino said that Checketts believed “there has always been a great affinity for soccer in Salt Lake, but simply no outlet for it.” While those beliefs are likely genuine, it seems that a key part of Checketts’ decision to bring a team to Salt Lake City was his – and Howes’ “ belief that it would be easy to garner taxpayer funds for a soccer-specific stadium. With the enthusiastic support of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, that process appeared as if it would be straightforward until March, when Bramble’s bill passed.

Howes admits Bramble’s move at the Legislature was an “unpleasant shock” to RSL management. But he knows “with absolute certainty” no one in RSL was involved in chalking graffiti at the legislator’s house. Despite Bramble’s bill, Howes believes a reasonable compromise to build a soccer stadium remains possible. Whether that stadium lands in Murray, Salt Lake City or Sandy depends in large part on which local lawmakers offer RSL the best deal.

Howes said that “in his heart” he would like to see the stadium built in downtown Salt Lake City. “Just close your eyes and you can envision it downtown, it’s a beautiful image, but we’ll make whatever choice is best from a business standpoint'and that could be at 9400 South, it could be 4400 South, and it could be downtown,” Howes said. “We could make any of them work.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson questions why Rice-Eccles shouldn’t remain RSL’s home. A new stadium will cost upwards of $60 million, and RSL wants taxpayers to fund almost half of it. Wilson asks why the Rice-Eccles field can’t be made wider for soccer. Creating the appropriate field for the players, and visuals for the fans, is a major priority to RSL. However, one of the main reasons the organization wants its own stadium is so it can control secondary revenue in the form of parking and concessions. Currently, the University of Utah gobbles up almost all of this money. This hurts RSL’s ability to turn a profit. Part of this issue is alcohol sales, which are a large part of any sporting-event revenues.

The University of Utah campus prohibits the sale of alcohol. Chris Hill, the U’s athletic director, appears unwilling to challenge this issue at all. Surely, one of the quickest ways to ruin the good will of the Legislature is by pushing the boundaries of alcohol laws.

Minutes before the U.S. National team’s first World Cup qualifier in Salt Lake City begins, a security guard in an orange golf shirt helps Dennis attach his “Fuerza” banner to the wall behind Rice-Eccles’ north goal. In front of metal-detector curtains left over from the Olympics, security officers at the entrance make Dennis open the bag containing his banner. Security officers stick their fingers inside the cylindrical bag but don’t find any weapons, nor do they find the flask Granger had hidden in the center of the banner.

Some members of The Jesters know how to sneak small amounts of alcohol into Rice-Eccles. However, they’ve no idea who might have “graffitied” Bramble’s house. They also have no idea how building a soccer stadium at 9400 South makes any sort of sense.

The Jesters don’t like the idea of sitting in a section of Rice-Eccles that offers a less-than-optimum soccer experience. Technically, their seats are located in the cheaper north goal area of the stadium, but so far The Jesters have been migrating toward where the loud and rowdy sit in the northeast corner. Fans don’t necessarily sit where their tickets indicate, and security officers passively allow anyone who wants to join the standing, shouting, and raucous drumming in what’s dubbed “The Loyalist section.”

Today they join “Sam’s Army,” the unofficial group of soccer supporters following the U.S. national team around the country in Deadhead fashion. The Jesters join them, first, by guzzling beers on tailgates before the game, and then by screaming and leaping up and down on bleachers in the south corner of Rice-Eccles. While Sam’s Army is the largest group of traveling supporters to the U.S. National squad, they are “unofficial” and unbound by any codes of conduct. Granger believes there’s a lot The Jesters can learn from Sam’s Army. He’s even brought a digital voice recorder so he can review their chants later with Dennis at Junior’s Tavern.

Granger and Dennis are excited The Loyalists won’t dominate today’s section of hardcore fans. They can’t identify with The Loyalists’ compliant attitude. To The Jesters, The Loyalists are goose-stepping geeks. The night before the big match, the Jesters make group uniforms so their idols won’t mistake them for RSL’s officially approved fans.

Friday night was spent designing a Jester hat logo matching the embroidery of their “We Are Real” banner. In Dennis’ back yard, inches away from an open Corona Light, Hull targets yellow “indoor/outdoor” spray paint through his stencil onto a generic blue T-shirt.

Ten feet away from Hull, in mock Superman pose, Granger runs across the tall clover weeds of Dennis’ unplanted dirt. While at the Smith’s superstore, Granger picked up a 5-foot American flag, now held across his neck by a duct-tape necklace slipped through the flag’s brass ringlets.

Granger’s wife shakes her head, teasing her husband that his outfit “works especially well with the cowboy hat.

With yellow spray paint still wet on his new uniform, Granger smiles wide. “I know,” he says.

Are Fire destined for MLS Cup title?

(by Greg Lalas si.com 11-9-09)

CHICAGO -- There are certain indubitable truths I believe in. For example, I believe peanut butter should be crunchy, ATM fees are crimes against humanity and Van Hagar never existed.

I can now add a new one to the list: When Charlie the Tequila Man says something, listen. I met Charlie while waiting for the traffic to clear at Toyota Park on Saturday night. The Chicago Fire had just earned a 2-0 victory over the New England Revolution, taking the series 3-2 on aggregate, in yet another installment of MLS' toughest rivalry.

Charlie and his compañeros were polishing off their final beers -- and last few sips of tequila -- and discussing the Fire.

"Good," Charlie said, making it sound more like guut. "Chicago is good. They will win."

Everything? I asked.

"Si, señor." Charlie smiled, revealing a set of teeth only a wife could tolerate. "Champions."

Charlie grew up in Sinaloa, Mexico, and came to Chicago 25 years ago. He and his buddies turn out for most Fire games -- the half-empty midsummer slogs and the raucous, flaming-red playoff games like this one -- and most admitted there was only one reason they had even considered becoming Fire fans: Cuauhtémoc Blanco.

The "guy who looks like an accountant," as an old girlfriend described Blanco, was en fuego on Saturday. (Aside: What's the over-under on fiery puns in a Fire-focused article? Infernal Combustion ... Flame and Fortune ...?) The Mexican national-teamer's series-clinching goal, flamboyant Bugs Bunny-esque conducting and crowd-incitin' referee-unnervin' radio-broadcaster-infuriatin' theatrics gave Fire fans from Winnetka to Juárez the ultimate belief: The Fire, despite the injuries, controversies and departures, are on the path to a second MLS Cup trophy.

And I have to say, I can't argue with that. With apologies to the Landon-heads out in L.A., the Ching-alicious luau down in Houston and the upset-special forces out in Salt Lake City, I think anyone who watched the first round of the MLS playoffs has to say Chicago is now the favorite to pop the bubbly in Seattle.

It isn't just Blanco who gives the Fire their current sizzle. (See, another one.) It's John Thorrington, the tireless central midfielder who returned from injury, scored the first goal and neutralized New England's magnificent Shalrie Joseph. It's Brian McBride, who does so many things beyond scoring goals, from providing a nearly faultless outlet up top to defending every set piece.

It's Chris Rolfe and his ever-present threat, Patrick Nyarko and his powerful pace, C.J. Brown and his ageless passion. And imagine if Gonzalo Segares and Wilman Conde get healthy in time for next week's game. Uffa, as they say in Italy.

But maybe Chicago's sudden rise to the top after slouching into the playoffs comes from its being forced to overcome many obstacles down the stretch. Out of chaos comes order, if you will.

A few weeks before the end of the regular season, I spoke with McBride, and he seemed to feel that the troubles -- the locker-room donnybrook between former Fire center back Bakary Soumare and coach Denis Hamlett that hastened the former's departure to France; the injuries to McBride, Conde, Segares, etc.; Rolfe's midseason announcement that he had signed in Denmark; the rumors that Hamlett, who seemed constantly at loggerheads with Blanco, was to get the axe if the Fire failed to reach the final -- all of it, McBride said, was pretty normal. Nothing to worry about. In fact, it might have united the team.

The MLS power brokers and the suits at the Worldwide Leader, of course, would love -- LOVE! -- to see Blanco & Co. in the final. Even better, they'd love to see a Chicago-L.A. final, so it could be billed as Beckham vs. Blanco, Donovan vs. McBride. The two best Designated Players and the two best scorers in U.S. national-team history go head to head. It's a marquee marketer's wet dream.

Of course, there's every possibility that it won't happen. After all, predicting anything in MLS is on par with predicting what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to say next: Do it with any authority, and you're liable to get burned. (Another one!)

But based on the way things are going for Chicago right now, I'd be willing to throw some dinero down. Besides, Charlie the Tequila Man said it would happen.

--------------------

Are Fire destined for MLS Cup title?

Ummmmm.........no.


Real join forces with Hannover

(foxsports.com 1-9-05)

Real Salt Lake, Major League Soccer's 12th team, today announced a cooperative partnership with Clint Mathis' former club, Hannover 96 of the German Bundesliga. The teams agree to formally partner in the fields of sports and business development for soccer in both countries, sharing best practices, exchanging players and planning exhibition games in each home city.

"During the negotiations regarding the transfer of Clint Mathis, it became apparent that Real Salt Lake and Hannover 96 share common interests in developing this sport and our organizations," said RSL General Manager Steve Pastorino. "As and expansion MLS team, we see great value in opening the lines of communication and cooperation with the Bundesliga club. We are excited to further develop our relationship with Hannover 96 and hope to see them in Salt Lake City very soon."

On the competitive side, Real Salt Lake and Hannover 96 agree to regularly exchange players for training and evaluation, as well as participate in a coaching exchange program on both the first-team and reserve-team levels for education and experience.

"Everyone at Hannover 96 - the President, the Coaching Staff, the Players and our Front Office employees - are all excited about this innovative Partnership with Real Salt Lake," said Iija Kaenzig, Hannover 96 General Manager. "The possibilities for both clubs are only limited by our imaginations playing each other in real soccer environments, exchanging expertise between our players and coaches and having an opportunity to be integrated into the U.S. sports business market the largest and most sophisticated in the world is for Hannover 96 an unique and cutting edge step into the future."

Real Salt Lake will organize Hannover's future tour of the United States, with games against RSL and possibly additional MLS teams. Conversely, Real Salt Lake may travel to Hannover in 2006 or 2007.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for both Hannover and Real Salt Lake," said RSL Head Coach John Ellinger. "Players and coaches alike are always thirsting for the chance to compare themselves to others. We are competitive, but at the same time appreciate the international nature of our sport. This relationship gives us the chance to interact regularly with one of the top clubs in one of the world's most prestigious leagues, on several levels."

On the business side of the Real Salt Lake-Hannover 96 relationship, both sides agree to share best practices in sales, marketing, licensing and other relevant business applications. Each organization will explore joint branding opportunities to promote both teams and leagues in the United States and German markets, as well as share promotional and creative ideas for the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

"We are participants in a global sport and associations like this one reinforce our stature within it," said Pastorino. "Partnerships like this will become more and more valuable for MLS teams as we develop into world-class clubs."

"We hope to bring RSL the exciting feel only the top level in European soccer can provide," added Kaenzig. "By playing against each other we will create the first ever Bundesliga-MLS teams home-and-away exhibition matches. Through our player and coach exchange the players and coaches of RSL will have a great opportunity to know what its like to compete in one of the best leagues in the world they will be able to touch, smell and feel the highest level of European Soccer."

Preparations continue for the inaugural season of Real Salt Lake, kicking off in April, 2005.

Founded by a group of students in 1896, Hannover originally concentrated on rugby and athletics. However, as the 20th century dawned, football was adopted and the club's first game took place in 1903. Taking their current names in 1913, after a merger with BV Hannovera 1898, it took the team 23 years to reach the first round of the German championship.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

U.S. clubs announce rebel North American Soccer League

(espn.go.com 11-23-09)

Rebel clubs from the second tier football championship in the United States and Canada will compete in a new North American Soccer League (NASL) from April next year.

The breakaway league was formed earlier this month without being named by clubs previously tied to the United Soccer Leagues (USL), the structure below Major League Soccer.

Formally announced two weeks ago, the rebel league has been named to honour the original NASL, a professional league that operated in the U.S. and Canada from 1968 to 1984 and featured soccer greats such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.

"We are paying respect to the players, coaches and leaders who were pioneers for men's professional soccer in North America," newly appointed NASL president Selby Wellman said in a statement. "Our intention is to offer an elite brand of soccer and outstanding experience for our partners and fans, something the old NASL did very well during its day. We will do the same in the new NASL."

The nine rebel clubs include USL champions Montreal Impact and the team they beat in the league's final game, Vancouver Whitecaps. The USL, which was founded in 1986 and has two senior men's divisions as well as a youth and women's structure, recently announced plans for new teams in Canada and Detroit and intends to continue without the rebel teams in 2010.

Rebel clubs plan breakaway North American league

(espn.go.com 11-10-09)

MIAMI -- North America will have a new soccer league from April after rebel clubs broke away from the established second tier league to form a new competition.

The seven clubs, previously tied to the United Soccer Leagues (USL), the structure below Major League Soccer, said on Tuesday they had formed a new league and begun the formal process of gaining official recognition from governing bodies.

The seven include USL champions Montreal Impact and the team they beat in the league's final game -- Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Carolina Railhawks, Miami FC and Minnesota Thunder have also split from USL to form the new league along with former USL team the Atlanta Silverbacks and a new team from St. Louis.

A statement from the clubs said they were already in talks with other prospective teams about joining the league.

USL said in a statement of their own that they intended to oppose the breakaway league's registration with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) on the grounds that "there is misrepresentation, interference with USL business operations and substantial debt among the membership of the parties applying for certification".

Although North America has had several failed attempts to launch professional soccer leagues in the past, Montreal president Joey Saputo said he was confident of success.

"This is not your typical new league. Most of our teams have existed for years," he said.

"We have united some of the best owners, teams and markets around a new vision for a professional soccer league in North America," he said.

USL, which was founded in 1986 and has two senior men's divisions as well as a youth and women's structure, recently announced plans for new teams in Canada and Detroit and intends to continue without the rebel teams in 2010.

USL clubs threaten breakaway league

(espn.go.com 9-2-09)

A new soccer championship, potentially an alternative to Major League Socccer (MLS), will be created in the United States next season unless a dispute between clubs and their league can be resolved.

The United Soccer Leagues (USL), which runs soccer from the professional division below the top tier MLS down to regional youth leagues, faces losing at least eight of its leading professional clubs.

The USL, founded in 1986, was owned by Nike until last week when it was sold to Atlanta-based company Nu Rock Soccer Holdings, a move which foiled a bid by a consortium of leading clubs to purchase the league.

Now those clubs, including franchises in major cities such as Miami, Atlanta and Minnesota are threatening to breakaway and form a new league.

A statement from the eight teams talked of a "commitment to achieving a team-owner controlled league" and said the group would pursue all avenues to do so.

Selby Wellman, owner of the Carolina Railhawks and spokesman for the eight teams, said a breakaway league was on the agenda.

"It is certainly one of the options," he told Reuters in an interview. "We are clearly at odds with USL, we have been at odds with them for two years over the fact that we are the only league in the world that doesn't have (team) owners controlling it," he added.

Selby said the teams, which also include franchises in Montreal and Vancouver in Canada and Tampa Bay and St.Louis, would be open to a compromise with the USL but that he was not optimistic common ground could be found.

"I have to be honest and say that my expectations of it are quite low -- if you just bought a league for that money and put it in Nike's pockets you are probably unwilling to turn it over to other people.

"We have been at this for two years..we are not willing to start all over again and drag it out for another year or so. Quite frankly we are tired."

USL CEO Tim Holt said: "We've seen the announcement, which contains several incorrect statements but we don't want to comment right now.

"At the moment we are focused on and excited about preparing the future of our professional divisions, we would prefer not to get caught up in a war of words."

Inter Milan face hearing after scooter incident

(espn.go.com 5-8-01)



MILAN, May 8 (Reuters) - Inter Milan are to face a disciplinary hearing after their fans hurled a motor scooter from the second level of the San Siro stadium towards the end of Sunday's game against Atalanta.
Reports said Inter supporters brought the scooter into the ground after stealing it from an Atalanta fan during a pre-match scuffle.

Photographs showed a group of fans trying to set the scooter on fire before hurling it from an upper stand on to an empty section of the stadium. No one was injured in the incident.

Inter, who will appear before the Italian Football League Disciplinary Committee, face a fine and possible ban from using the stadium.

Milan police commissioner Enzo Boncoraglio held a meeting with Inter and AC Milan officials on Monday to discuss improving security at the stadium wich is shared by the two Serie A clubs.

Inter have been banned by UEFA from using the San Siro for their next two European games following crowd trouble at the end of a UEFA Cup match against Alaves in February. There have been numerous cases of fans throwing objects onto the pitch this season.

The San Siro is to host the Champions League final on May 23.

Fans meet the team and trophy at airport

















New co-owner thrills to role with RSL

(by Michael C. Lewis sltrib.com 11-19-09)



Sandy » Dell Loy Hansen might have raised a few eyebrows when he misstated the name of the soccer team he's buying, twice calling it "Salt Lake Real" at a news conference Wednesday to announce his purchase of nearly half of Real Salt Lake.

But his enthusiasm could hardly be questioned.

With a voice still hoarse from cheering RSL during the landmark victory that propelled it into the MLS Cup championship game this weekend, the real-estate developer from Logan passionately described the "fairy tale story" he has lived since deciding eight weeks ago to become a local partner of majority owner Dave Checketts.

"Real will be a stronger, better, championship franchise -- I believe -- because Dave invited me in to help him," Hansen said.

That invitation came during a fund-raiser for Sandy mayor Tom Dolan that Checketts held, as part of a party to watch the U.S. national team play a qualifying game for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Seated with Checketts and Michael Eisner, the former CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Hansen said he listened to Checketts try to interest Eisner in buying a piece of the team.

"You really can't treat me like chopped liver," Hansen recalled thinking. "I'm sitting right by this conversation! So they lean over and say, 'Maybe you'd like a piece.' I says, 'Yeah, I think I would.' And over the next eight weeks, I was just a little quicker to the punch than Michael Eisner."

So Hansen wound up buying a 49 percent stake in the team, its stadium and the KALL-AM radio station for what is believed to be around $52 million -- previously reported figures that team officials did not dispute.

Checketts promised to keep the money within the company, using it to pay down a "substantial amount" of debt and make improvements to Rio Tinto Stadium, particularly its front entrance. He also hopes to find a plot within blocks of the stadium to build a practice field for the team.

Meanwhile, Hansen was basking in his new role, accepting a framed RSL jersey with his name on the back and happily noting that he has yet to see the team lose -- having started attending games only since RSL began the stunning four-game winning streak that has earned it a shot at the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup final in Seattle on Sunday.

"You just couldn't have picked a more magical time," he said.

Soccer: Owner working to sell 49 percent of RSL

(by Michael C. Lewis sltrib.com 11-10-09)

While Real Salt Lake prepares for the game that could send it into the league championship, owner Dave Checketts is negotiating to sell nearly half of the Major League Soccer team to local real estate developer Dell Loy Hansen.

Spokesman Eric Gelfand confirmed Tuesday that Checketts and his Sports Capital Partners Worldwide are close to selling 49 percent of the team to Hansen, though the deal has not closed yet. Gelfand declined to reveal the price Hansen will pay.

"We are in advanced discussions," Gelfand said.

Meanwhile, RSL leaves today for its game against the Chicago Fire in the Major League Soccer Eastern Conference final on Saturday. If it wins, the team will reach the MLS Cup championship game for the first time.

"We're in a great groove right now," midfielder Andy Williams said.

The owner of the Wasatch Property Management real estate firm based in Logan, Hansen declined an interview request Tuesday. His assistant said a confidentiality agreement prevents Hansen from discussing the deal -- though Hansen recently confirmed his involvement in the weekly business newspaper, The Enterprise , saying he will be "considered the local partner" for the team.

"Everybody felt that it would really add some punch to have a local partner," he told the newspaper. "I'll be primarily responsible for financial, payables and sponsorship relationships with Real."

All of the proceeds from the deal will remain with RSL, sources within the organization said, and are not tied to Checketts' effort to buy the NFL's St. Louis Rams.

Nor does the sale indicate the team is facing financial problems, the sources said. Rather, it's designed to strengthen the financial position of the team, Rio Tinto Stadium and KALL Radio, the organization's broadcasting arm. Checketts will retain a controlling interest in the team.

Checketts and his ownership group have grown to like the idea of a "local partner," especially after including one in their ownership of the NHL's St. Louis Blues.

Hansen told The Enterprise he plans to "brand" many of his real estate holdings along the Wasatch Front -- they include numerous apartment complexes and the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Salt Lake City -- by decorating them with RSL flags and banners and offering game tickets for sale. His company also will sponsor housing for 20 players and staff members, and strive to find local opportunities that RSL otherwise might miss.

"We want to make a little bit bigger noise throughout Utah," he said.

Hansen accompanied Checketts and other team officials to RSL's 3-2 playoff victory at Columbus last weekend, and was in the locker room when Checketts congratulated the team.

Gelfand did not offer a timetable on the closing of the deal, except to say the sides are "pretty close."

Terms are not expected to be disclosed.

But considering that the newest forthcoming teams in MLS paid expansion fees of $40 million each, it's likely that Hansen is paying at least almost $20 million for his portion of the team. The price tag could be much higher, however -- perhaps some $51.5 million -- depending on how much of the $65 million in private investment in Rio Tinto Stadium is included in the valuation of the team.

Players want big changes in MLS structure

(espn.go.com 11-25-09)

MIAMI -- Major League Soccer's players are demanding significant changes to the way their league is organized as part of contract negotiations now entering a critical phase.

MLS is notably different from most leagues in the world in that player contracts are owned by the league and not individual clubs and there is no internal transfer market.

The players' union, MLSPU, has a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league that ends on Jan. 31 and the parties have spent the last year in negotiations.

If a new agreement is not reached the league risks being without any contractual arrangements in February, around six weeks before the start of the new season.

"It is certainly our sincere hope that we can have an agreement in place by (Jan. 31)," union executive director Bob Foose told Reuters on Wednesday.

"But in order to do that there are going to have to be significant changes made to the way the league functions and obviously we would have to come to agreement on economic pieces."

MLS commissioner Don Garber warned recently that talk of a strike or shutout was premature and could be damaging to the league and Foose agreed it was too early to be considering industrial action.

"It is certainly not something we have raised at the bargaining table," Foose said.

"There is an old labour [movement] saying that you have to hope for peace but prepare for war and there is certainly some truth in that.

"In any collective bargaining negotiations there is that risk but it is early to be talking about that and we sincerely hope it doesn't come to that."

DISCREPANCIES

This week FIFPro, the international players association representing professionals from 42 nations, urged soccer's global governing body FIFA to tackle what it sees as discrepancies between its statutes and the operating rules of MLS.

"[MLS] ignores FIFA rules in several respects," FIFPro said in a statement.

"There are players without a guaranteed contract, player contracts are routinely terminated by the league, MLS acts as a cartel, there is no freedom of movement for any MLS player and virtually any player can be transferred to another club in the league without his consent.

"[We] demand that FIFA take responsibility in these matters, take account of the views of the players and ensure that the (FIFA) regulations are enforced on a global basis, particularly in the USA".

Garber said last week the union was wrong to say they were not in line with FIFA's rules.

"I will say emphatically that we are operating in compliance with the FIFA regulations and the union is simply wrong on this point," he said.

"We spent a lot of time creating the structure for MLS with tremendous legal support and financial commitment, they have reviewed the regulations and we are in fact abiding by them."

FIFA said in a statement they would not interfere.

Speaking to reporters at the MLS Cup final on Sunday, Garber said talks had been productive but were also tough.

"We understand and accept the fact that they will be tough negotiations but we are very committed to putting together a deal that will be good for our players, for management so that we can continue to together grow the sport."

Utah Jazz: Players react to RSL title

(by Tim Buckley desnews.com 11-23-09)

Not everyone with the Jazz tuned in to ESPN on Sunday night and saw Real Salt Lake win the MLS Cup by beating David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

But Ronnie Price did, from beginning to penalty-kick end.

"I'm happy for them," the Jazz combo guard said. "They deserve it. They played well. They stepped up big. It was fun to watch."

Price had a rooting interest, spurred by his friendship with Real star Robbie Findley.

The two have known each other since shortly after Findley was traded to Real in June of 2007.

How?

Findley is related to Hawks guard Mike Bibby, who played in Sacramento when Price was with the Kings.

"When he first came out here Bibby texted me and told me his cousin was out here," Price said, "and we linked up and then we just kept in touch and . . . we became pretty good friends.

"I'm happy for him, excited for him," added Price, who sent Findley a congratulatory text message Sunday night. "He had a great year, and that entire team, they deserved it."

And they won it the hard way, on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie in regulation and 30 minutes of scoreless overtime play.

That's rough akin to deciding an NBA championship with a post-OT free-throw shooting contest in Game 7 of the finals, something that had Jazz players pondering the possibilities Monday morning.

Opinions were mixed.

"I'd take that one," said Kyle Korver, who just so happened to lead the NBA in free-throw shooting percentage at 91.4 in 2006-07.

"Imagine yourself. . . . You're shooting two free throws, everything is on you," said Mehmet Okur, himself a career 79.6 percent free-throw shooter. "That would be tough."

Difficult for some, too, is the digesting the fact underdog Real won its Cup despite having a losing regular-season record.

Korver, though, can see how it happened.

"I don't follow soccer real close, but it seems like upsets are more possible in something like soccer," he said.

"In the NBA, especially when you have these seven-game series, (it's) the hardest for an upset," Korver added. "Football is one game; there's possibilities. But NBA playoffs, the better team almost always wins — 99 percent of the time, it seems like. But, good for them. It's awesome."

Price sure thinks so, and he, for the record, seemed intrigued by the notion of NBA ties being broken by free throws.

"That would be an interesting way to end a basketball game, I'll you that," he said. "Maybe they should try that some day and see how it works — in a preseason game."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Donovan's season ends on a low note



(by Ives Galarcep espn.go.com 11-22-09)

SEATTLE -- Of all the 14 players to step up and take penalty kicks in Sunday night's MLS Cup final, none had taken or made more MLS penalties than Los Angeles Galaxy star Landon Donovan.

The reigning MLS MVP had made 21 of 23 career penalty kicks and had to be favored to find a way to beat Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, renowned as an ace at stopping penalty kicks. Donovan stood poised to do just that as he looked up and watched Rimando heading to his left. Somewhere between that realization and Donovan's striking of the ball, he lost focus just enough to send his kick well over the goal.

The unexpected miss breathed life into Real Salt Lake, and by the time Robbie Russell converted the championship-winning penalty kick, Donovan could only soak in the disappointment of his first MLS Cup final loss in four appearances.

"You don't want to judge yourself based on one loss or one penalty-kick shootout, but unfortunately that's what you're judged on at the end," Donovan said. "We're very proud of where we got to, but it's hard in this moment to feel good."

"Penalty shootouts are part of soccer, and we don't have a choice whether we want to do that or not, but it's a difficult way to lose for every team," Donovan said. "After the pain from the loss subsides, we'll realize what a great year we had and we'll build on that."

Donovan's night began with so much promise, as he delivered a beautiful pass to Mike Magee for the Galaxy's first-half goal, but that contribution was the lone bright spot on an otherwise frustrating night for the U.S. national team star. Russell did a good job of containing Donovan, who struggled to find the ball as the central midfield tandem of Jovan Kirovski and Chris Birchall failed to provide much support.

"That all comes down the fact that I had guys around me helping me the whole time," Russell said of dealing with Donovan. "It showed that we shut down their attackers and came away with the win."

"PKs are one of those things where anyone can miss it, and anyone can make it," Russell said of Donovan's miss. "You look at some of the greatest players in the world. They've missed PKs."

Donovan's miss brought reminders of the one other high-profile penalty miss of his career, a saved penalty against Mexico's Pachuca on what would have been the winning kick in the 2007 SuperLiga Final.

"I didn't think [Donovan] was going to miss it, to be honest with you," Rimando said. "I knew he was going to go high; I didn't know if it would be to the right or left. "Any kind of miss, whether I save it or it's a missed penalty kick, we were going to have the advantage."

Donovan's teammates weren't about to blame him for the loss. David Beckham could be seen hugging Donovan afterwards as he reminded him of the good season the Galaxy had, while Magee adamantly defended a player who had stepped up for the Galaxy so many times before.

"Anyone who wants to blame Landon doesn't know what they're talking about," Magee said. "He's the leading goal scorer in playoff history and he's what, 27? We didn't lose because of him. He's one of the reasons we were here."

The Galaxy's loss came down to far more than just Donovan's miss. Jovan Kirovski and Edson Buddle both had poor penalty-kick attempts saved by Rimando, and in regulation there were few bright spots for the Galaxy, with Magee and Gregg Berhalter two of the few players to turn in strong performances.

"We didn't play well enough during the 120 minutes to win the game," said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. "Landon had a fabulous year and has been a great captain and I told him that."

Whether Donovan is back in 2010 to help push the Galaxy toward another shot at an MLS Cup remains to be seen. While he has a league option year that is certain to be exercised for 2010, there is still the possibility of his being sold this winter or loaned out. Donovan wasn't about to think about a potential departure from the Galaxy after five years with the club. He was too busy still trying to make sense of a dramatic and disappointing end to an otherwise stellar season.

"Sometimes in life things happen that you can't understand and can't explain," Donovan said. "You certainly learn a lot more from a moment like this than from winning, but winning feels a lot better."

MLS Cup 2009 photos

































Cast-offs who became champions

(by Ridge Mahoney si.com 11-25-09)

No team wins an MLS Cup without players cast off, dropped or ignored by other teams, and the 2009 champions are no exception. Several important contributors to Real Salt Lake's MLS Cup title arrived in Utah from other teams, and controversy accompanied a few of them -- most notably captain Kyle Beckerman, who was swapped by Colorado for Mehdi Ballouchy in July '07, not long after Jason Kreis had taken over the coaching duties at RSL from John Ellinger.

"He's a fighter, a competitor," said goalie Nick Rimando, whose penalty-kick saves earned him the MLS Cup MVP award but praised his captain before and after the match. "Once he crosses the sideline onto the field, it's such a clichéd thing to say, but he wants to win no matter what. Guys feed off that. He's our leader, he's our captain, and it's a perfect role for him in that midfield. To see him fighting for balls, it makes it easier for us in the back."

Salt Lake and Colorado met on the final day of the regular season the past two years, and both times, RSL got the result it needed to eke into the playoffs at the Rapids' expense. Beckerman had a few words for his former team, which also formerly employed current RSL defenders Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert, as well as some observations about the team that had been vanquished at Qwest Field.

"Colorado is a bad organization," says Beckerman bluntly. "L.A., we got lucky getting Robbie Findley and Ned Grabavoy, but that's the way it goes. And L.A. got a big-time player in Chris Klein; he's a great player." (Findley and Nathan Sturgis went to RSL in June '07 in exchange for Klein; Grabavoy saw limited action for the Galaxy during its '05 championship season, then went to Columbus before being waived by San Jose earlier this year and claimed by RSL.)

Beckerman praised another Galaxy player who showed considerable class by coming into the RSL locker room to offer his congratulations: "He's a class act, he really is," said Beckerman of David Beckham, who also made it a point to embrace RSL owner Dave Checketts. "I wouldn't have expected that from anybody, and for him to come in here and congratulate us is just a class act and he's a top-drawer person. He's done a lot for our league and I know it wasn't easy for him to do that. He wanted this as much as anybody else."

Grabavoy, who converted the winning PK in the Eastern Conference final shootout win over Chicago, injected life into the RSL attack upon replacing Will Johnson at halftime and, along with Beckerman, helped throttle the Galaxy midfield.

"You get that in a league like this, when a lot of players float around a little bit, but in a game like this you don't need any extra motivation," said Grabavoy. "It is kind of a weird feeling: I've won a championship with [L.A.] and now with this club, and I'm really excited and happy for this Real Salt Lake organization."

Findley led RSL with 12 goals this season and banged home the equalizer in the 64th minute to set up the penalty-kick shootout. He converted RSL's second attempt.

"I didn't know what to expect, really, it was something new for me," said Findley of the trade. "Yeah, I was a little nervous, but it ended up working best for me. It's whatever for me, that's in the past, and I'm enjoying it with these guys here. Same thing for Ned, we're just enjoying the moment here. It feels kind of good to get the Galaxy, but all these guys here worked hard."

Clint Mathis nearly won an MLS Cup with the Galaxy, with which he started his league career in '98. Los Angeles lost to D.C. United in the '99 final, and after bouncing between teams in America and Europe, he passed through the Galaxy roster again last year without playing prior to joining RSL in the spring.

"It came down to penalty kicks, which is a sad thing in this sport," said Mathis, a dynamic offensive catalyst in the second half and overtime. "I don't like to see anyone lose in this situation like we did last week, but that's the rules and you got to play by them and it's nice to be first this time instead of second."

Getting back to the captain, who worked as hard as anyone all season, Beckerman couldn't wait to talk about some friends from his first real taste of the world's game: playing for first competitive squad of the U-17 residency program, along with Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu, among others. Coached by former RSL coach Ellinger, the U-17s finished fourth in New Zealand after more than 40 players came through the program to be evaluated.

"I won this tonight, but it wasn't just me tonight," said Beckerman. "There were a lot of guys on that under-17 team that won it with me. I carried the torch for them. Some guys got some raw deals in Major League Soccer and they had to get real jobs, but they won it with me tonight. I know they were watching and I'm proud to be part of that. Landon, he already has a couple [actually three MLS Cups], and I wanted one.

"Jordan Cila, Seth Trembly, Alex Yi, Nelson Akwari, Kenny Cutler, D.J. Countess, DaMarcus, Oguchi Onyewu. That was a good team."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

RSL outlasts Galaxy to snare MLS Cup


(by Jeff Carlisle espn.go.com 11-21-09)

SEATTLE -- As it is every year, this MLS Cup was a coronation. Yet what set this version apart was that it was also a battle of attrition. Starting lineups and substitution patterns were thrown completely off kilter as injuries piled up. But in the end, Real Salt Lake prevailed in a penalty shootout, 5-4, over the Los Angeles Galaxy, after 120 minutes of play had finished tied 1-1.

Once again, it was RSL keeper Nick Rimando who came up big in soccer's version of Russian roulette, saving penalty-kick attempts from Jovan Kirovski and Edson Buddle, while Landon Donovan fired his attempt high and wide.

And it offset a splendid effort from L.A. substitute keeper Josh Saunders. Saunders replaced starter Donovan Ricketts in the second half when the Jamaican was forced to leave with a broken right hand, and the sub saved two spot kicks of his own, including one in the fifth round from Andy Williams with the game on the line.

But on a night when RSL overcame the losses of playmaker Javier Morales due to injury in the first half and midfielder Will Johnson at halftime due to illness, Real survived to claim its first championship, with Rimando setting the table for defender Robbie Russell to slot home the game-winning attempt.

"We started off with a dream and an idea of what this team could look like, and would look like over time," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "What we saw this year was that at certain points in the season and in certain games, we saw what we were capable of. We saw that when we played our best soccer, we were one of the best teams in the league."

Given what RSL endured in the first half on Sunday night, it was borderline miraculous that Kreis and his players were on the podium collecting winners' medals. L.A. had the better of the opening 45 minutes despite losing midfielder Dema Kovalenko to a viral infection. The Galaxy's makeshift central pairing of Chris Birchall and Jovan Kirovski did enough to put RSL off their game, as did a clearly hobbled David Beckham.

"I had three injections in my ankle, and it wore off after about 15 minutes," said the Galaxy midfielder.

Of course, part of the Galaxy's edge was due to the sprained lateral collateral ligament that Morales suffered in his left knee just 15 minutes into the match. A clumsy, knee-to-knee challenge from Beckham sent Morales crumpling to the turf. And despite trying to carry on for seven more minutes, the Argentine ultimately left the game in tears.

Morales' departure was a body blow from which Real spent the rest of the half trying to recover, as substitute Clint Mathis struggled to make an impact. Meanwhile, L.A. began finding space in midfield, especially after Donovan moved up front to partner with Edson Buddle.

Magee spurned a great chance to put L.A. up in the 36th minute, dragging his shot wide after being set up by Donovan. But the Galaxy forward made amends five minutes later. A quick exchange of passes in midfield allowed Beckham to find Donovan on the right wing, and his inch-perfect cross found Magee at the far post to volley home from close range.

As the half ended, there appeared to be no way back for RSL. But Kreis made an inspired substitution, bringing on Ned Grabavoy for Johnson, and suddenly, a team the couldn't string more than two passes together in the first half was carving the Galaxy defense apart, with Kyle Beckerman increasingly putting his stamp on the game.

Yet as much as the switch sparked RSL, Kreis insisted the bigger change occurred inside the team's collective head.

"It was [more] about the mentality of the group, being able to calm down and play soccer," said Kreis. "I thought we were just too often trying to thread those very narrow passes in through the middle. ... We needed to play wide more and be a bit more patient."

The onslaught was initially stifled by Ricketts, who denied Robbie Findley and Russell on point-blank attempts. But in the 64th minute, Findley was quickest to pounce on a rebound after Yura Movsisyan's initial attempt had been blocked, and it was game on.

The virulent injury bug then reared its head again, as Ricketts was forced to leave the match due to a broken right hand he sustained in an earlier collision with teammate Omar Gonzalez. Saunders came in and performed admirably, but the fact that L.A. had to burn a substitution on a goalkeeper left the team, as coach Bruce Arena put it, "a little bit handcuffed" -- especially when Gonzalez was forced to leave the game with cramps.

The introduction of L.A.'s Chris Klein helped stem the tide a bit, but aside from a few threats on the counter and the occasional Beckham cross, it was RSL's possession game that eventually carried the day. This had the effect of taking Donovan almost completely out of the game.

"I think it just wears on you when you're playing defense a lot and your counterattack is just such a ... you know, it's at a high pace," said Beckerman. "So when you're counterattacking, you're going from defending, defending, defending to a sprint. It starts to take on your legs a little bit."

Yet RSL's edge in possession wasn't enough to make a breakthrough, either in normal or extra time. That set the stage for Rimando's heroics. And for the second time in his career, he stymied Donovan.

"I was fortunate that [Donovan] went over, because he usually buries those," said Rimando." But I'm two-for-two, right?"

He is indeed. And when it comes to MLS Cups, Real Salt Lake is now one-for-one.

America embraces Beautiful Game


(by Greg Lalas si.com 11-24-09)

SEATTLE -- On Sunday, as Qwest Field swirled with glitter and noise at the end of the MLS Cup final, I couldn't help but think of Paul Caligiuri.

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of Caligiuri's so-called "Shot Heard 'Round the World," that looping goal in Trinidad that sent the U.S. national team to the 1990 World Cup in Italy -- the Yanks' first trip to the big dance in 40 years.

It also, I would argue, catalyzed America's modern soccer movement, or whatever you want to call it. A year earlier at the 1988 Summer Olympics, former U.S. captain John Harkes recalled to me recently, the Beautiful Game was so mysterious to Americans that a reporter in Seoul asked him to explain what a goal kick is.

This wasn't simply a lack of knowledge; this was almost willful ignorance. Why should I care about the rules, even the basics? No one in America cares about this foreign game.

There was some truth to this -- if America only existed in the mainstream. There were plenty of outcasts who cared. They cared more than anything. They played in leagues and pickup games, and they followed the international game as best they could.

It wasn't easy back then. They had to wake up at the crack of dawn, lie about their age, and sneak into Irish pubs to catch the FA Cup on satellite TV. They traded grainy VHS tapes of G'olé and Tor! Total Football, paid the import price for the '86 World Cup sticker-book and stickers, stole their parents' car to go to a jam-packed soccer store like George's in Lathrup Village, Mich., to buy a pair of Copas or Patricks.

They were the ones who celebrated "The Shot" and screamed in anguish when Tab Ramos and Peter Vermes nearly scored against Italy in the World Cup the following summer. (I still clench up nervously when I think about Ramos' free kick.) They understood what it meant to go to the World Cup, especially with the biggest sporting event in the world coming to America in 1994.

"We woke up a nation of semi-soccer fans," Harkes said. "It solidified the decision to hold the '94 World Cup here. Really, the 1990 World Cup was the first platform to prove to our country that we could compete on the world stage."

Prove to our country. It's heartbreaking to think about a 22-year-old player wearing his nation's jersey, standing with his hand on his heart for the national anthem, and feeling that his own countrymen aren't behind him. But Harkes is right. For all the U.S. soccer players' attempts to compete on the world stage these past two decades, they have really been trying to compete for the hearts and minds of Americans.

Which is why I thought of Caligiuri when Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman lifted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy at the end of the MLS Cup final. Because here was the fire ignited by Cal's goal -- passionate, knowledgeable fans (and not only fans of the competing teams), international superstars, a full press box, serious analysis of the game on national TV, an all-night party in Seattle's Pioneer Square.

Beckerman, for my money, was the best player on the field on Sunday. Maybe not the most valuable in terms of earning RSL the trophy -- but over the 120 minutes, no one was more consistent or dominant in his position. The dreadlocked beast was, well, a beast.

"We played our hearts out," the skipper said. "We played our style of soccer. I think it's fun to watch. It's definitely fun to play. The star for us is the whole team. When we play well, it's because everyone is playing well."

Beckerman has to be a serious contender for the U.S. squad next summer in South Africa. Which is what this is all about in the end: competing on the world stage, as Harkes put it.

Twenty years ago, American soccer players had to "prove" themselves to their own country. After seeing Sunday's game in front of an electric crowd, we can safely say: mission accomplished. If the sold-out MLS Cup final -- and really, Seattle's embrace of the Sounders and the league all season -- proves anything, it's that Americans now believe in this game and believe that American soccer is important.

There's still a long way to go before we prove it to the rest of the world, but no one can say that Americans don't care. And no one is asking what a goal kick is anymore.