Kansas City, Kan.
Real Salt Lake’s Sebastian Velasquez wanted someone to tell him the dream opportunity that ended so disappointingly was really just a nightmare, and he would wake up with another shot at the MLS Cup.
This is RSL’s reality: A wonderful season ended the wrong way. In the December darkness of Sporting Park, on a partially frozen field in 20-degree temperatures, after 120-plus minutes of rough, intense competition Saturday ended in a 1-1 tie with Sporting Kansas City, RSL ultimately failed in its bid for a second Major League Soccer championship in five seasons.
RSL coach Jason Kreis was so impressed with his team’s performance throughout the playoffs that he insisted the unhappy ending is "going to be quickly forgotten, in my mind."
Having come from a downcast, almost devastated locker room, Kreis also knew the players would have their own lasting images, no matter what he’d just told them. Asked what he’ll remember, veteran defender Nat Borchers said, "That we lost, really," while almost managing to smile.
The potential alternate endings were many. Velasquez’s winning attempt was just one of them. There he stood in the eighth round of penalty kicks with a chance to reprise the Robbie Russell role of 2009 and deliver another title to a franchise that really needed a trophy as a reward for its consistency. And then Velasquez booted the ball right to goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen for an easy save, and on went the shootout.
It eventually ended 7-6 for SKC after 10 rounds (five is standard), when Lovel Palmer’s attempt hit the crossbar and bounced away.
Of course it did. What other way could this game have ended? Asked what he’ll take away, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said, "The posts ..."
There was more, but that’s a starting point. Both teams always will believe this game should have ended in their favor, long before the penalty-kick phase — with balls that went off the goalposts, in RSL’s case, or sailed high, from SKC’s perspective.
"In 2009, we were the happy guys," said Javier Morales, referencing the MLS Cup victory over Los Angeles in penalty kicks.
That title came on a neutral field in Seattle against a heavily favored team featuring Landon Donovan and David Beckham. If that script seemed unlikely, so did what was unfolding Saturday on SKC’s home field, with a standing-room crowd of 21,650.
The trophy was RSL’s for the taking, in so many ways. Morales’ goal with Beckerman’s assist in the 52nd minute gave RSL the lead. And before SKC’s Aurelien Collin tied the game with a header of Graham Zusi’s corner kick, RSL could have taken command.
The frozen end of the field, in front of the goal Nielsen was defending, almost worked to RSL’s advantage. Shots from Beckerman and Morales both hit the post to Nielsen’s left as he reacted slowly.
Even when the ball struck the woodwork, Morales was thinking, "OK, it’s going to going to go in."
But it caromed away — like Beckerman’s earlier attempt, and like Palmer’s final shot.
RSL needed clutch kicks from Joao Plata, Morales, Chris Schuler and Tony Beltran just to extend the shootout to Velasquez’s involvement. Those efforts shouldn’t be overlooked, and neither should everything else RSL did to give itself this opportunity.
It’s the end of this team’s season, and maybe the end of Kreis’ remarkable tenure as he considers what’s next for him. Velasquez, so confident that he was going to come through, also was looking ahead.
"It’s going to help me grow," he said. "I’ve got to move on. I can’t let this affect me for the long term."
After all, his team’s 2014 season begins in only three months. But as for RSL’s next shot at a championship, who knows?
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