KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It took five years for karma to catch up to Real Salt Lake. And when it finally did, the Claret-and-Cobalt couldn’t conjure up the same penalty-kick shootout magic they rode to a championship in 2009.
At the end of 120 minutes of soccer on Saturday night, RSL were so confident in Nick Rimando – the undersized goalkeeper who made five saves in two straight shootout finishes en route to MLS Cup 2009 – that they figured the magic was working again.
But in an epic 10-round shootout that became easily the longest in league history, knifing and twisting with drama and momentum on literally every kick, Salt Lake found themselves on the wrong end of a 7-6 scoreline, following a tense 1-1 game through extra time.
“It’s brutal to be on this side,” veteran left back Chris Wingert told reporters in the visitors’ locker room postgame. “But it’s hard for us to complain because we won in ’09 on penalties. Sometimes, that’s the way the game goes.”
The drama unfolded immediately with RSL missing their the first two attempts – Álvaro Saborío sending his kick over the crossbar and then Ned Grabavoy seeing his try saved by a diving Jimmy Nielsen.
Rimando couldn’t match that. Claudio Bieler and Paulo Nagamura both finished with ease past him, putting Sporting Kansas City in the driver’s seat and RSL staring at a near-insurmountable hole.
“For me personally, I expect to make those saves and make more saves than other goalkeepers,” explained Rimando. “Tonight wasn’t my night and the luck wasn’t on my side this time.”
But, as Kyle Beckerman explained, Salt Lake stuck by their fan motto: Believe.
“We felt, ‘Keep believing, believing, Nick will get some for sure,’” he explained to reporters.
Sure enough, the momentum swung back the other way. Beckerman calmed RSL nerves by converting the third kick, as did Joao Plata and Javier Morales after him. Meanwhile, Rimando was there to stop Matt Besler on Sporting’s third attempt.
And though Benny Feilhaber converted their fourth, Graham Zusi sailed his over the crossbar, dramatically leveling the shootout at 5-5 and sending it to extra rounds.
By the eighth round, it looked as if Real Salt Lake were going to pull off another title via spot kicks after Sporting’s Lawrence Olum sent his attempt trickling harmlessly to the left of the post.
That gave 22-year-old Sebastian Velasquez a chance to step up and write his name into RSL lore with a winning kick, putting his name next to that of Robbie Russell, who did the deed five years ago in Seattle.
Velasquez said he did his best not to think too much about the enormous weight of the moment, and tried to tune out the sold-out Sporting Park crowd.
“I just walked up, put the ball down and I tried to put myself in a situation like I was on the training ground, take it like I always practice my PKs and don’t switch it,” he explained. “The one thing I didn’t want to do was switch it.”
So he stuck to the script, stutter-stepped his way up to the ball and put it low and to the right ... where it was promptly saved by Nielsen. The moment to be a hero was gone.
“It’s every kid’s dream,” said a sympathetic Beckerman. “It happened so fast and you just take the kick thinking it’s going to go in and it doesn’t. It just turns a dream into a nightmare.”
With the 20th kick of the shootout, it was up to Lovel Palmer to keep Salt Lake in it and then to an inconceivable exchange between Nielsen and Rimando at kicks No. 21 and 22.
But it wasn’t to be. Palmer – a second-half substitute for Wingert, who left with a recurrence in his rib injury – stepped up, drilled it high up the middle and straight off the crossbar. Sporting KC were MLS Cup champions, and RSL were heading home empty-handed.
"They had a chance to win and then we had a chance to win and then they won it. And on a different night, it goes a completely different way," head coach Jason Kreis said in the postgame press conference.
"A different night Sebastian puts his goal in and we’re walking away here with trophies and talking about how great we are."
They were great, of course. Kreis said he believed his team overachieved in 2013, a season in which the youth movement took over and RSL revamped their lineup after trading away three longtime starters.
But that won’t make the offseason any easier for the youngsters who were so key in getting them back to MLS Cup for the first time since their first and only title. And some will take the dramatic ending to Saturday night harder than others.
“It’s definitely still on my mind right now,” Velasquez said. “I wish somebody would just pinch me so I could wake up from this dream.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.