RSL wins Utah's first major sports title since '84
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Robbie Russell stared at nothing but the ball, the whole time. Put everything else out of his mind. The crowd, the pressure. The chance to win, or lose, a championship.

None of it reached him.

Then, everything did.

When Russell fired home the penalty kick that delivered Real Salt Lake its first Major League Soccer championship on Sunday night, he spun around and saw five years of faith and perseverance charging right at him -- in the form of three dozen joyous coaches and teammates roaring in celebration of a shootout victory over the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy that a month ago nobody could have seen coming.

"Nothing in the world can describe it," Russell recalled. "There are no words that can describe it. It's just utter elation. Just pure ... you turn around and you see those guys running at you ... there's just no way to describe it."

Except to say that, in the end, RSL made believers out of everybody.

Few figured them to topple the mighty Galaxy, with superstars Landon Donovan and David Beckham.

But the teams played to a 1-1 tie through regulation and overtime, with RSL once again surviving an agonizing penalty-kick shootout when Russell fired home the seventh shot of the shootout in front of 46,011 fans at Qwest Field.

That's exactly what happened last week, when RSL beat Chicago in the MLS Eastern Conference final -- midfielder Ned Grabavoy struck for the winner, that time -- right down to goalkeeper Nick Rimando allowing only four of the seven shots he faced past him. Of course, Donovan sent one of those shots high over the crossbar, a stunning mistake by a legendary player who's arguably the best penalty taker in the history of the league.

"I just put it in the air," he said. "It's probably partially due to tired legs and not concentrating in that moment."

That was as obvious a sign as any that everything, finally, was going to work out for RSL.

It had fallen behind in the first half when the Galaxy's Mike Magee struck a perfect cross from Donovan at the far post, and the Galaxy were unbeaten all season when scoring first and leading at halftime. By then, both midfielder Javier Morales and Will Johnson had left the game -- Morales with a knee injury and Johnson with food poisoning.

But RSL refused to give up.

Midfielders Clint Mathis and Grabavoy came on as substitutes, forward Robbie Findley equalized on a deflection in the 64th minute, and RSL outlasted the Galaxy through 120 minutes that had many players fighting cramps and fatigue. It also neutralized Donovan and Beckham, for the most part.

"It's just due to our character," defender Chris Wingert said. "It's unbelievable; nobody can ever take this away from us."

By the time the game reached the shootout, RSL was confident. It had survived the one last week, and the Galaxy were down to backup keeper Josh Saunders, after starter Donovan Ricketts left the game with an injured hand.

The teams were tied after the first five shooters, after Saunders stopped RSL's Andy Williams on his chance to win the game. But after the Galaxy's Chris Klein -- a former RSL player -- and Wingert both converted, Rimando stopped Edson Buddle's shot to set up Russell for the historic winner.

"What we saw this year was that at certain points of the season and in certain games, we saw what we were capable of," coach Jason Kreis said. "We saw when we played our best soccer, we were one of the best teams in the league, so now it's nice to say we are the best team in the league."

mcl@sltrib.com

Storylines

IN SHORT » RSL beats the Los Angeles Galaxy 5-4 in a penalty-kick shootout to win the MLS Cup championship.

KEY MOMENT » RSL's Robbie Russell scores the seventh shot in the shootout after Nick Rimando denies the Galaxy's Edson Buddell, clinching the title.

KEY STAT » Goalkeeper Rimando stops three of seven shots in the shootout.