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Bad breaks? Bad luck? Neither defined Real Salt Lake’s MLS Cup

Dec 8, 2013, 9:44 PM EDT

lovel_palmer_jimmy_nielsen Reuters

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The general mood around Real Salt Lake’s locker room after Saturday’s MLS Cup final was one that rued their missed chances. In addition to losing the title game in a 10-round penalty kick shootout, the team hit the woodwork three times in the match’s first 73 minutes. On a number of occasions, the Western Conference champions were within inches of avoiding extra time, even if their hosts seemed to generate more good chances over the match’s 120 minutes.

[MORE: Sporting Kansas City crowned 2013 MLS champions after 10 rounds of penalty kicks]

No doubt, had Robbie Findley or Javier Morales finished into their open nets in the 29th and 73rd minutes, Real Salt Lake could have been celebrating come minute 91, but to label those bad breaks is a little misleading. Perhaps this a bit pedantic, but there is a difference between bad luck and not finishing your chances, and when you miss an empty net, it’s the latter. Hitting the post isn’t bad luck. It’s a missed shot.

Likewise, attributing a shootout loss to bad luck is also slightly skewed. Just because the probability of winning a shootout might fall close to 50 percent doesn’t mean the “coin flip” analogy is a good one. When you toss a true coin in the air, you have no real control if it lands on heads or tails. Players do have some control over whether they make their penalty kicks, and while the nature of a shootout means we probably won’t get enough kicks to determine if one team is truly better than the other, the process almost always tells us which team took their five (or, in this case, 10) kicks better.

On Saturday, Sporting performed better in the shootout, and it wasn’t just luck. Álvaro Saborío and Lovel Palmer’s misses represented a lack of execution, while Jimmy Nielsen’s saves on Ned Grabavoy and Sebastian Velasquez  were the combination of research, intuition, luck, and execution.

There were a couple of areas where factors beyond RSL’s control may have cost them. The weather (and its resulting influence on the surface) was a potential advantage for Sporting Kansas City, whose familiarity with the environment and turf appeared to help early. But in the second half, the conditions worked in Real Salt Lake’s favor, with Jimmy Nielsen unable to move effectively in a frozen south penalty box. The conditions could have differentiated the teams, but that’s not how it worked out.

Then there was the controversial second half non-call on Aurélien Collin, who was already carrying a yellow card. His takedown of Robbie Findley just before his game-tying goal would likely have drawn a caution under other circumstances; namely, if Collin wasn’t already in danger of being sent off. If you feel a yellow is a yellow regardless of the situation, Hilario Grajeda should have sent the Sporting defender off. Unfortunately (like it or not), you’ll have trouble finding an official who has such an unsympathetic implementation of the rules. Right or wrong, Collin stays on in that situation in almost any other postseason game.

So it’s unclear where Real Salt Lake suffered any bad luck. And although there were a couple of instances that could be described as bad breaks, the better terminology is missed opportunity. Real Salt Lake’s undoing on Saturday was their failure to make the most of their chances, not the coins flipping in Sporting’s favor.

Sporting didn’t win by much, but they did win in a way that transcended fortune or luck. They deserve the respect of having their performance acknowledged.

  1. hildezero - Dec 8, 2013 at 10:47 PM

    I think it was the home field advantage that made a difference. If the game was played in Utah, Real would definitely win.

    • jerichowhiskey - Dec 8, 2013 at 11:11 PM

      Just like they did against DC in the Open Cup? Haha.

  2. hildezero - Dec 9, 2013 at 12:07 AM

    No. How is that funny, huh? Tell me…

  3. geojock - Dec 9, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    MLS will always be known as a thug league when you allow a guy like Collin to play his style of game and not be held accountable. He could have had 3-4 yellows in the final and should have had more in the playoffs.
    Oh and Myers push wasnt even punished. I hate that kids see that at the professional level and dont see anything wrong with it because nothing was done.

    • joeyt360 - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:41 AM

      Missed Nigel de Jong in the World Cup Final, I see.

  4. talgrath - Dec 9, 2013 at 7:09 PM

    I disagree that luck wasn’t a factor; sure, those shots were missed opportunities and they probably should be more on-target, but it wasn’t a wide open goal so they couldn’t have shot it straight in on any of the shots I recall. At the very least you can’t say that the ball that bounced back to Jimmy Nielson was due to lack of skill or some skill on the defense, at least 50% of the time that ball is heading into the net off the post. Statistically speaking, getting a goal is about 50% luck and about 50% skill anyway, a different bounce off the frozen grass and some of those post shots would have been in.

    As for penalty kicks well, really they’re at least half if not more a matter of luck, there’s skill involved but ultimately it’s a question of two things, whether the shot is on target and whether or not the goalie guesses right. Announcers will tell you that players can “make the goalie miss”; with the exception of moves like that clever run-up by one of the RSL players, that’s bull. Talk to any goalie about a penalty and they don’t say “I read him right and knew exactly what he was going to do” on a blocked penalty, they say “I guess right”, there’s a reason for that. Sure, it’s an educated guess based on where the players have put the ball before in penalty situations and what the goalie observes, but it’s impossible to read where that ball is headed based on a player’s movement or hips with any real accuracy; if it was possible then someone would have taught their goal the skill and they’d have a near 100% block rate. I know, I know, fans don’t like to think that the game we love is about half luck, but that’s the reality; there’s nothing wrong with getting lucky in a single game because it took more than luck for these two teams to get to the game in the first place.

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