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Real Salt Lake: RSL's quest to win MLS Cup comes up agonizingly short in Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Shootouts provide drama unlike anything else in sports.

Five years ago penalty kicks provided Real Salt Lake with the absolute highest of highs and delivered the franchise’s only title. Saturday afternoon, however, RSL experienced the absolute agony of penalties.

In a wildly entertaining MLS Cup level at 1-1 after regulation and overtime — a game that saw RSL hit the post three times — Sporting Kansas City prevailed 7-6 in a marathon shootout that went to the 10th round of penalties at Sporting Park.

The final dagger for Real Salt Lake came when Lovel Palmer banged the team’s 10th penalty off the crossbar, securing Kansas City’s first MLS Cup since 2000 in front of a passionate sellout crowd of 21,650.

“In 2009 we were the happy guys and tonight not,” said RSL midfielder Javier Morales.

As difficult as swallowing another runner-up finish was, coach Jason Kreis said the 20-kick shootout in no way defines his team this season.

“For me there was no way for this group to lose. We were in a no-lose situation in this match. Just by getting to this final was a remarkable statement about what this group of players has been able to do,” said Kreis, whose team also lost the U.S. Open Cup final a couple of months ago. “Very easy to look at that in a negative way, but I don’t think we should because frankly I thought we played outstanding tonight. It wasn’t like we came here to defend or bunker in or break them on a counter.”

In a match that featured fantastic momentum swings throughout 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime, the shootout was no different.

Kansas City had an opportunity to win in the fifth round, but didn’t. Real Salt Lake had a chance to win in the eighth round, but didn’t.

The 10th round of kicks eventually determined the cup winner as Aurelien Collin buried his kick for Sporting Kansas City and Palmer caromed his off the bar.

“The amount of close plays, goals called back, you just look back on it, I don’t think I’ve ever played in a game where there was that many momentum changes and close plays,” said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy.

Alvaro Saborio — RSL’s regulation goal scorer — and Grabavoy quickly put RSL in a big hole in the shootout when Saborio went high and Grabavoy was saved with Kansas City taking a quick 2-0 lead.

A Nick Rimando save and makes by Kyle Beckerman and Joao Plata helped RSL close the deficit to 3-2, which seemed to merely set the stage for Graham Zusi to steal the spotlight with a championship-winning PK. However, he pushed his shot well over the crossbar. Morales calmly converted his penalty to send it into extra kicks.

After two rounds of makes, Kansas City’s Lawrence Olum put his penalty in the eighth round wide, which set the stage for Sebastian Velasquez to be the Robbie Russell-esque hero of 2013. However, his shot was saved by Kansas City 'keeper Jimmy Nielsen.

“For me those penalty kick situations are like flipping a coin,” said Kreis.

Well before it got to penalties though, there were opportunities for Real Salt Lake to seize its second championship in franchise history. After all, it hit three posts over the course of the game — something that’s plagued the franchise in big matches through the years.

The first post came in the 29th minute when Chris Wingert’s dangerous service forced Nielsen to punch the ball. He ended up punching it straight up and slightly behind him. Findley tried tapping it home out of midair, but hit the inside of the post instead.

On a frozen field that made conditions very difficult to deal with, both teams struggled to settle into any rhythm.

“Both teams couldn’t settle things down at all. We were panic stations when we got the ball, giving it away too cheaply. Both teams played very direct in the first half,” said Kreis.

Early in the second half Real Salt Lake settled into the game, and not surprisingly its goal game shortly thereafter.

RSL broke the deadlock in the 52nd minute when Saborio chested down a cheeky chip from Beckerman and blasted it past Nielsen for the 1-0 lead.

The goal sent RSL’s 1,500 fans in the corner of Sporting Park into pandemonium as their club was 38 minutes from lifting MLS Cup.

Over the next 21 minutes RSL twice came agonizingly close to doubling that advantage, but was denied by the post each time. Beckerman’s shot in the 62nd minute caromed off the post and over the end line, and then in the 73rd minute Morales chipped a shot over Nielsen that hit the left post and then trickled across the goalmouth and out over the end line again.

“To be honest I think this group is a little bit used to that. We’ve had a lot of games where the ball comes off the woodwork,” said Kreis, who quickly added: “Kansas City had a couple clear-cut chances they didn’t put on the frame. I could whine about hitting the posts. (Kansas City coach Peter Vermes) could whine (that) his players should’ve put them on frame.”

Just three minutes after Morales was denied, Collin injected life into a dormant Kansas City side by heading home a Zusi corner kick to level the proceedings at 1-1.

The last 10 minutes of regulation were shaky for both sides, but particularly for RSL with Kansas City trying to build on the late momentum.

The fatigue of playing on a frozen field started to catch up with both teams in overtime, which quickly set the stage for penalties.