Monday, November 23, 2009

The 'Other Football' Championship


Even though there was an important game yesterday evening for my hometown Philadelphia Eagles on national television, there was another sports event on television at the same time which stole most of my attention during the whole night.

That event was the MLS Cup Final between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. To the rest of the world, that event would be considered the football championship of America. They would consider the Eagles game to be a contest known to them as 'American football'.

To most of America, the MLS Cup would decide the champions of a sport we call 'soccer'. For the uninitiated, 'MLS' stands for Major League Soccer, which represents the professional level here in America of the game that is the most popular in the rest of the world.

One of the reasons that pro soccer has very little profile or coverage here in Philadelphia is that we haven't had a local team for whom to cheer. The last time that Philly had a true soccer team for which to root was way back in 1980 when the Philadelphia Fury played their final season.

For much of the 1970's, pro soccer was a part of the local sports scene. The Philadelphia Atoms started things in what was a generally successful competitive four-year run from 1973-1976. In their very first year of existence, the Atoms won the NASL (North American Soccer League) championship. The team regularly would draw more than 20,000 fans to their matches on the pitch at Veteran's Stadium.

After winning the title, Atoms goalkeeper and local player Bob Rigby became the first soccer player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Then in 1975, midfielder Chris Bahr, a Penn State product, scored 11 goals in 22 games and was named the league's Rookie of the Year in his only season playing pro soccer. He would go on to star in the NFL as a kicker for 4 teams over 14 seasons.

The Atoms were unable to sustain their success, and eventually folded. In 1978 the NASL moved back into Veteran's Stadium with the Fury. That team never really caught on thanks to three straight seasons of losses, folding after 1980 having compiled an overall 32-60 record.

The NASL, formed back in 1968, finally folded itself in 1984, and professional soccer became largely a non-entity in the United States. The modern game in North American terms began with the run-up to the U.S. bid to host the 1994 World Cup, the acknowledged world championship of national team football/soccer. As a part of that process the MLS was formed, and pro soccer began once again when the league formally began play in 1996.

The MLS Cup has become the annual championship game of the league, and for the 2008 championship a completely modernized trophy was developed for which the teams now compete. The league is made up of 15 teams currently who compete in a season from March through November, but that will expand to 16 teams next season, including a return at long last to Philadelphia, and ultimately to 18 teams by 2011.

Philadelphia Union will begin play with their opener at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL's Eagles, on April 10th, 2010. This is due to construction delays at what will eventually become their permanent home in the Philly suburb of Chester, PA at Union Field, an 18,500 spectator soccer-specific facility being built on the banks of the Delaware River.

With expansion on the horizon and with a renewed commitment in recent years to developing American youth soccer from within, the league held their 2009 MLS Cup last night in Seattle, home of the wildly popular expansion Seattle Sounders team. The two participants were the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy and the upstart underdogs from Real Salt Lake.

The Galaxy is this year's version of the 'best team that money can buy' as they are led by American superstar Landon Donovan, English icon David Beckham, and Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. They won the MLS West Division regular season with a record of 12-6-12, and were solid favorites to take this MLS Cup match.

Real Salt Lake finished under .500 for the season at 11-12-7 and in 5th place in the West Division. Normally the MLS Cup pits the top playoff finishers from the East against the West, but Real Salt Lake got in because the league puts it's top 8 teams into the post-season regardless of division. RSL was placed into the East playoffs as the last seed, but then proceeded to pull upsets throughout to reach the MLS Cup.

Last night's match began with the Galaxy continually taking the play to the RSL side, finally breaking through thanks largely to their superstars Beckham and Donovan. Beckham began a play at midfield and fed Donovan along the wing. Donovan then passed the ball deftly and perfectly across the goal mouth, laying it right on the path of a charging Mike Magee who directed it home in the 41st minute for a 1-0 LA lead.

The score remained 1-0 at the half and into the 2nd half where RSL began to even the playing field. RSL had been put at an even greater disadvantage on the field when playmaker Javier Morales was injured early in the match by an aggressive tackle from Beckham. That injury advantage for LA would be wiped away early in the 2nd half as Ricketts suffered a broken hand in a collision and eventually had to be replaced.

RSL began to press the play towards the Galaxy goal more regularly, and finally knotted the score when Robbie Finley left-footed a scorcher past Ricketts in the 64th minute after a scrum in the penalty area. It would be Ricketts final play, as the pain from his broken hand became too severe to go on. The LA goalie was replaced by backup Josh Saunders, marking the first time a goalkeeper was ever replaced in an MLS Cup match.

With the score now tied at 1-1, the two sides battled back and forth through the remainder of regulation and injury time, and then on into a pair of 15 minute overtime periods. This was the 7th time that an MLS Cup game had reached overtime, but for only the 2nd time in history neither team scored and the game would be decided on penalty kicks.

Beckham took the first penalty shot for LA and scored, but the Galaxy seemed dead when Donovan missed his shot as the #4 shooter. In the 5th round, Andy Williams of RSL had a chance to win it all but was robbed by a nice save from Saunders, and the penalties went on. Finally on the 7th round, LA's Edson Buddle was stopped by RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. That setup a chance for Robbie Russell, who had not scored all season, to win it all for RSL.

As Russell approached the kick, Saunders guessed wrong, and Russell calmly slid a shot into a wide open net. Dropping to his knees and burying his head in his hands with emotion, Russell was quickly mobbed by his teammates who celebrated in a heap in front of the goal. The underdogs from Real Salt Lake had won the MLS Cup in just their 5th season of existence. In the process they also became the first team in major American pro sports history to finish their regular season below .500 and then go on to win the championship.

This coming week the Union will begin to fill out their roster as the MLS holds an expansion draft for the team. Between these players and others that it is able to sign over the winter, the Philadelphia Union blue and gold side will form for the first time. At some point a primary sponsor will be named to round out the team's identity.

In April the club will take the pitch for the first time together under their motto "jungite aut perite", "join or die", cheered on by their already rowdy group of fans nicknamed the 'Sons of Ben' (relating to Ben Franklin) and thousands more with the ultimate goal being to one day reach that MLS Cup, and to bring home the 'other football' championship to the Philadelphia area.

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