After playing Sporting Kansas City to a 1-1 draw through regulation and a 30-minute overtime on a frigid, frozen field, RSL fell in penalty kicks 7-6 in the longest shootout in MLS playoff history.
"It's so tough," said midfielder Kyle Beckerman. "Especially when we're one kick away from lifting the trophy again. It's just really tough to take."
"I feel really bummed that we missed a great opportunity to win another championship," said defender Chris Wingert. "It's a bit devastating, but I'm proud of the guys and proud of our effort."
Kansas City became the fifth franchise to win multiple league titles after a previous crown in 2000, when they were the Kansas City Wizards. The win also denied Real Salt Lake a chance at their second league title after they won their first via a similarly dramatic shootout in 2009 over the LA Galaxy in Seattle.
Real Salt Lake had a chance to end the shootout with their eighth shot of the night, but the 36-year-old goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen snuffed out the shot by RSL midfielder Sebastian Velasquez. SKC defender Aurelien Collin followed with a thunderous goal on SKC’s ninth shot, and RSL backup defender Lovel Palmer blasted his ensuing shot off the crossbar to hand SKC the title.
Sporting Kansas City – who also won the 2012 US Open Cup title in a shootout at Sporting Park - improved to 14-1-2 in home playoff games since 2000, while veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando and RSL lost a playoff shootout for the first time in three attempts, going back to the 2009 Eastern Conference Championship and ensuing MLS Cup.
"Luck just wasn't on my side tonight," said Rimando. "It's always a tough way to lose, especially when you're a goalkeeper. But it's a great way to win and congratulations to KC."
SKC had a chance to seal the shootout on their fifth shot after an early miss from RSL striker Alvaro Saborio and a Nielsen save on midfielder Ned Grabavoy, but midfielder Graham Zusi rocketed his shot over the bar.
Claudio Bieler, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber, Seth Sinovic, CJ Sapong and Chance Myers all scored in the shootout for SKC, while Kyle Beckerman, Joao Plata, Javier Morales, Chris Schuler, Tony Beltran and Nat Borchers converted for Real Salt Lake.
SKC’s win marked the third time the MLS Cup was decided in penalty kicks, following RSL’s win in 2009 and the Houston Dynamo’s win over the New England Revolution in 2006. Saturday’s game – which was played in frigid temperatures hovering around 20 degrees at kick off, the coldest match in league history – was the eighth occasion in which a title was settled after regulation.
"The team is just going to remember that they lost and Kansas City is going to walk out of here knowing that they won," said head coach Jason Kreis. "It's unfortunate because we drew. But since there are no draws in soccer, we go to penalties and it is what it is. I just want to make sure that my group doesn't walk away forgetting what they did this year because it was a whole hell of a lot."
Saborio scored in the 52nd minute of regulation before Collin – who was later named the game’s Most Valuable Player - answered with his third goal of the postseason for Sporting Kansas City.
After neither team seriously threatened again during regulation, SKC forced the first chance of extra time. Rimando made perhaps the biggest save of the game just three minutes into the extra session, tipping a point-blank shot from Zusi over the bar following a long throw-in from Matt Besler.
RSL then celebrated what they thought was a potential winner in the 105th minute, but Saborio’s header off a cross from Robbie Findley was waved off for offside. Neither team seriously threatened during the second period of extra time, forcing the shootout in front of a frenzied Cauldron supporters’ section at the east end of Sporting Park.
After a frigid first half with genuine scoring chances few and far between, Saborio finally cracked the ice shortly after the break with his fourth career playoff goal. The Costa Rican international corralled a pitch-perfect ball over the top from Beckerman and blasted a right-footed shot into the back of the net from just outside the box to stake RSL to a 1-0 lead.
Sporting Kansas City responded in the 76th minute, when Collin scored his fourth goal in 10 career playoff games off a Zusi corner kick. The imposing French defender rose above Schuler to thump a header into the back of the net, handing Sporting Park a lifeline when RSL appeared set to see out the final 25 minutes.
Collin’s goal came after RSL missed two agonizing chances in the second half to pad the lead. Beckerman knuckled a right-footed shot off the post in the 62nd minute, and Morales drifted a right-footed shot off the far post from outside the box in the 73rd minute after a breakout from Findley opened up the SKC defense.
Findley missed the best scoring chance of a rugged and physical first half that saw 17 fouls and yellow cards to Saborio, Collin and RSL defender Chris Wingert. After Wingert lofted a ball into the SKC box in the 29th minute, Nielsen collided with Myers and punched the ball back toward the end line, where Findley found himself with an open look at net.
But his shot from a tight angle on the right side of the goal caromed harmlessly off the post before Nielsen corralled it, leaving Findley with his head in his hands while he lamented the chance.
The field at Sporting Park was nearly frozen with icy patches near one of the goals. RSL says the conditions definitely played a factor in the outcome.
"The field was a little bit unplayable," said Kreis. "It was frozen all up the opposite side of the field from our bench."
"It was a skating rink out there," said defender Nat Borchers.
So RSL concludes a very successful season, but changes are bound to happen. The biggest question is the future of Kreis, who has been linked the coaching job at the new New York FC job. Kreis said he will make up his mind about his future in the coming weeks.
"I'm not standing here saying that this group should have won more finals," Kreis said. "What I'm saying is that it's remarkable that they got to so many finals. I think it's unbelievable that this group has put themselves in so many positions to win things, but unfortunately for one reason or another, things just haven't gone our way."