Underdog Real Salt Lake played like favorites

Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis kisses the Cup

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SEATTLE – In the end, this wasn't the night for the team of destiny, the team of superstars, the team that was supposed to win the MLS Cup. Instead, it was the night for the team that refused to listen, refused to pay heed to the doubters and skeptics who said it couldn't or shouldn't emerge as league champion.

This was the night for Real Salt Lake, the ultimate underdog which never played, thought or acted like one, for which this victory must bring the sweetest of ecstasies.

For much of the time since its inception in 2005, the Utah club was an embarrassment – on the field at least, where its inept play belied the forward-thinking processes at board level that would eventually bear fruit.

When Robbie Russell slid in the decisive kick in the penalty shootout to seal the victory against the Los Angeles Galaxy, it was the culmination of a building program that began in earnest the moment former player Jason Kreis was named head coach in 2007.

Kreis is a man who understands the reality and evolution of Major League Soccer as well as anyone, having seen it first-hand as a performer and now a puppet-master. His work during this campaign has been part-magician, part-man manager and part-mental coach in convincing his crop of players to blank out the dissenting voices that said they had no place even being in the postseason.

RSL, which entered the playoffs with an 11-12-7 mark, became the first team with a losing regular-season record to win a championship in modern North American pro sports, but this is far from being a tale of a lucky loser. Kreis and his men did it the hard way, and they did it legitimately, outplaying the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire to reach Sunday's showpiece at Qwest Field.

This was where the true contrast was brought into focus, with the Galaxy's comparative glut of spending power highlighted by its superstar duo of David Beckham and Landon Donovan and a coach, Bruce Arena, who has been in the game since before Kreis was born. However, there was no inferiority complex about RSL, no acceptance of the widely held belief that this final would be all about the culmination of the Galaxy's own revival.

"I spent a lot of time over the last five years trying to figure out why I even did this," club owner Dave Checketts said. "The credit really goes to Jason, who put this team together in less than three years.

"He is the most competitive guy I have ever met. He drives himself, he drives this club [and] he has a way of backing off when it is appropriate. He is going to be a very good coach for a long time."

Kreis is only 36 years old and he looks to have the tools and personality to have a bright coaching career ahead of him. Other former players have won the MLS Cup, but Kreis' age means he has the potential to go far, perhaps even beyond the North American game.

He never lost faith in himself or his system, not during the regular season when it looked as if a playoff berth would elude him, nor during the final, when Mike Magee's first-half strike put the Galaxy ahead.

"Towards the end of the season things became really fun for me," Kreis said. "There is something gratifying about having a vision or an idea about how you want to put a team together. When that comes to fruition, it is very satisfying. We have been the best team out there in every game in the playoffs."

RSL refused to roll over after the break and grabbed an equalizer through live wire Robbie Findley after 64 minutes. The remainder of regulation and extra time remained scoreless, before it came down to that most nerve-wracking of soccer inventions, the shootout.

RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando saved twice, from Jovan Kirovski and Edson Buddle, and Landon Donovan skied the Galaxy's fourth kick way over the crossbar. In the end it was Russell, the tough defender and hardly a natural penalty taker, who iced it with a cool finish past Josh Saunders.

"Coming in we were thinking we could win the game," Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman said. "If I could choose one team to play on, I would choose this one.

"Just a couple of weeks ago, I was preparing to tell everyone at my end-of-season meeting that even though we didn't make the playoffs, we were really close to being a good team. Then this happened. It is awesome.

"In two years we took a team that was a doormat and turned them into champions."

And proved that the team everyone thought couldn't – could.