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Top Five Underdogs of 2009: Age Trumps Beauty, Life Springs in the Desert, and Dead Women Kicking

Posted on November 25, 2009 by John Wingspread Howell
The consumate underdog, in just a matter of weeks the Sky Blue FC went from last place to WPS Champions.

The consumate underdog, in just a matter of weeks the Sky Blue FC went from last place to WPS Champions.

It has been a year of mixed emotions for incurable fans of the underdog. On the downside are ultimate victories by ultimate bullies such as the Steelers and the Yankees. Atypically, March Madness produced no Cinderella stories. Perennial underdogs, the Cleveland Cavaliers choked on their best opportunity yet to win an NBA Championship, faltering in the Conference finals, with Orlando.

On the upside are the overlapping individual and team stories of Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals, the parallel stories of two soccer Cinderellas, and a Warner-like comeback in the golf world.

And now, for the countdown.

Number Five: Tom Watson, PGA/British Open
Like the Arizona Cardinals, Tom Watson gains a place on our short list by virtue of a near miss. One could call Watson the Kurt Warner of the PGA.

This year Watson, who has recently had difficulty qualifying for major tournaments took eventual champion Stewart Cink to a playoff before finally running out of fairy dust. Watson had won his share of titles in his prime, but the sixty year-old had to come back from the cryogenics lab to barely lose this one, making it perhaps his most memorable and most impressive effort.

Tom Watson captivated the sports world with his run at the 2009 British Open.

Tom Watson captivated the sports world with his run at the 2009 British Open.

 

The only thing that would have made it a better story would have been a duel with Tiger Woods, who was off his game in this event. Still, Watson accomplished something no golfer, including Tiger, has ever achieved in my lifetime: causing me to not only pay attention to a golf tournament, but to get excited about someone playing in it.

Number Four: Kurt Warner and Number Three: The Arizona Cardinals
Despite the ring on his finger, Kurt Warner is the quintessential individual underdog, having gone from the Arena League to sacking groceries to a MVP role in leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory in 2000. This year, as he led the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl appearance in their long and tortured history, coming within seconds of winning a second ring. To further endear him to underdog aficionados, Warner did so by resurrecting his own career yet again, appearing yet again from obscurity to command yet another band of usurpers.

Kurt Warner nearly led the Arizona Cardinals to a shocking SUper Bowl upset.

Kurt Warner nearly led the Arizona Cardinals to a shocking SUper Bowl upset.

It is somewhere between irony and synchronicity that Warner’s two greatest hours have come with teams from St. Louis.  Before Arizona, when the formerly Cleveland Rams spent a generation in LA, the Cardinals played in St. Louis. St. Louis did not make our short list of underdog towns but they come close. Where Warner’s twice unlikely success is concerned, that has to mean something.

Perhaps the two best underdog stories of ’09 come from the game America loves to misunderstand, and in an outcome that does Title Nine proud, there is gender balance. First the men.

Number Two: Real Salt Lake, Major League Soccer
Some would say with team names like Real Salt Lake or Sky Blue FC, no wonder Americans haven’t warmed up to soccer. A comment such as that puts the sport of soccer on my permanent underdog short list in the United States. But in its own ironic way, that status makes pro soccer in the United States the quintessential American game.

It may be royalty in Europe and the rest of the world but in the U.S. soccer is the little guy, the one fighting City Hall, the ghetto kid trying to hold his own in the Ivy League, the political outsider, the Jimmy Stewart character in a Hitchcock film. In other words, when seen in that light, soccer in America should be seen as the ultimate American sport, but only, of course, until it supplants “America’s pastime,” and once it becomes dominant, were it to become dominant, it would cease to be America’s game. Do you follow?

At any rate, those who ignore soccer in the U.S. do so at their own deprivation. While the MLS is far from being on par with the world’s premier leagues, it has continued to improve the quality of play on the field while building a larger and more passionate fan base.

Look no further than the site of this year’s MLS Cup Championship match. Seattle joined MLS this year with an upgrade to their minor league club, the Sounders, and quickly established themselves as a power on the field and without question, the league’s biggest power in the stands. Averaging more than 30,000 per match, the Sounders outdrew the nearest competitor by almost 10,000, but it is not only the number of fans in the stands, but the fact that all 30,000 stand throughout each match, never stop moving, and never shut up. If anyone were to stumble upon a match in Seattle while channel surfing, one would be convinced it was being played somewhere in Europe. The noise, the intensity, the constant synchronized movement of the faithful looks and sounds anything but American.

That doesn’t mean Seattle is the exception. It just means it is the best example. Most MLS teams come close to matching the NBA or NHL in attendance, and surpass that of a weeknight game in many Major League Baseball parks. And the enthusiasm is certainly there.

The Eastern Conference Championship match in Chicago was a study in how to build a successful franchise in a new league in a “minor” sport. Every one of the 21,730 seats at Toyota Park were filled, mostly with rabid, red-clad partisans, keeping the noise level in the ear-plug range. And that was the coming out party of our number two underdog.

The favored Chicago Fire dominated Real Salt Lake at both ends of the field for 90 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time. That brought the game down to an exchange of kicks from the penalty mark. The drama built with each shot.

The two clubs exchanged goals until Salt Lake’s Javier Morales was the first from either club to miss, shooting high. What would prove to be a false sense of imminent triumph gripped the house.

And just as quickly, this sense of destiny deflated when John Thorington was the first for Chicago to have his shot saved. Another Salt Lake miss and Chicago had the advantage again.

But then it was all Salt Lake. After succeeding by going high on Salt Lake keeper Nick Rimando, Fire shooters kept going low and to the keeper’s right, while Salt Lake blew two successive shots past Chicago’s Jon Busch, and the match was over.

Before the players or the crowd could adjust, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was out on the midfield line presenting the Conference trophy to the visiting team.

Real Salt Lake needed a miracle in the conference finals just to get a chance to win their first-ever MLS Cup title.

Real Salt Lake needed a miracle in the conference finals just to get a chance to win their first-ever MLS Cup title.

In winning the MLS Cup, Real Salt Lake was a classic underdog story. Not only had they upended the favorite on the road, they brought the first major league sports championship of any kind to Salt Lake City, itself a small market, late to the professional sports circuit, and as the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), despite its’ climate and natural mountain beauty, a rather misunderstood and under-appreciated place.

And until now, Real has carried the moniker of expansion team. It was their first trip to the MLS Cup and only their second time seriously contending in the playoffs. Chicago on the other hand had won not only the MLS Cup in their debut year as the league’s first expansion team, they had also won the U.S. Open Cup, competed in the MLS Cup finals one other time, and won the Open Cup twice more. Chicago is the perennial contender, the perennial early season favorite to take it all. Once again they would fall short, but this time it wasn’t to a traditional MLS power, it was the new kids.

And… the Number One Underdog of 2009 is…

Sky Blue FC  (New Jersey/New York) Women’s Professional Soccer
In Women’s Professional Soccer, New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC went from dead last after nine weeks, to winning the league’s inaugural championship over the barely blemished LA Sol.

Player-coach Christie Rampone was the third coach for the SKy Blue FC in the first season of the WPS.

Player-coach Christie Rampone was the third coach for the SKy Blue FC in the first season of the WPS.

The Sol had clinched a playoff berth before Sky Blue figured out how to win two in a row. They clinched the regular season championship before with weeks to spare. They had dominated the league in goals scored and goals allowed. They had barely allowed a goal in their home venue at Home Depot Center. Yet on the pitch at Home Depot Center, Sky Blue shut out Goliath, scored twice, coming through as the unofficial women’s club world champions. That would be enough, but that’s only half the story.

Player Coach Christie Rampone took over Sky Blue with two regular season games remaining and the playoffs on the line after the club’s second coach of the season, Kelly Lindsey, walked off with no notice during a dispute with management. She had taken the reigns after the team’s original coach, Ian Sawyers had been sacked early in the season.

So, a team that had seen three coaches in its first year of existence, that had seen coach number two abandon them in the heat of a playoff run after a dramatic turn-around, that had to adjust to coach number three as a peer and player, managed to defeat the league’s hottest streaking club, St. Louis in order to play the league’s essentially invincible behemoth for the championship, and not only won, but did so without appearing to be fully challenged. 

And so, after further review, despite the disappointing success of Yankees and Steelers, the failure of  Cinderellas to dance their way to coronation this past March, thanks to a sixty-year old golfer, a thirty-something quarterback, a football team rising phoenix-like in Phoenix, and two unlikely soccer champions, it wasn’t such a bad year for underdogs in America after all.


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