MLS Cup Shines Without Superstars

From the start of this season, everyone ex­pected the Los Angeles Galaxy to coast into Toronto, where they would easily take the MLS Cup. With Landon Donovan coming off a stellar loan period at England’s Everton, and with the continued maturation of de­fensive youngsters Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza, a berth in Major League Soccer’s final seemed like a mere formality. And to their credit, the Galaxy lived up to their bill­ing from the start of the season. They opened 2010 with an 11-match unbeaten streak and coasted to claim the MLS Support­ers’ Shield, given to the team with the most regular season points.

But, as American sports fans will always tell you, the playoffs are a whole different ballgame. After easily dispatching of the Se­attle Sounders, the Galaxy ran into the buzz saw that is FC Dallas. The historically-ma­ligned Texas club lost just four games all sea­son, going 19 matches unbeaten from May through mid-October.

In the Western Conference final, Los Angeles dominated the proceedings from the opening whistle, and a goal looked in­evitable. In the 26th minute, however, Dallas took the lead entirely against the run of play. The probable league MVP, David Ferreira, collected a pass from Marvin Chavez and ripped a shot into the bottom corner, past an absolutely stunned Donovan Ricketts. It has often been said of Galaxy manager (and former manager of the United States) Bruce Arena that his teams have a stunning inabil­ity to come back after conceding goals, and this night was no different. After the goal, Dallas took charge, adding insurance goals in the 54th minute from George John and in the 73rd from Chavez. Thus, the Galaxy’s seemingly pre-destined run ended, and Dal­las booked their place in the final for the first time in club history.

Their opponents in this Sunday’s MLS Cup will be another club that has suffered immensely throughout the years, the Colora­do Rapids. Through a quirk in the MLS play­off format, Colorado qualified for the final as Eastern Conference Champions, and those with any background in American geogra­phy will note that the champions of the East are actually situated further west than the Western Conference champions. It’s weird, but I digress.

Colorado has barely squeaked through the playoffs to this point. Their opening se­ries win against the Columbus Crew came on penalty kicks, when Crew midfielder Brian Carroll blasted his spot kick over the bar, much to the jubilation of the Rocky Moun­tain faithful. In the semifinal, their lone goal in a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes came on a Kosuke Kimura cross that sneaked in at the far post, untouched by any other Colorado attacker or San Jose defender.

While neither team is truly one of the league’s glamour sides, with neither pos­sessing one of the league’s vaunted Desig­nated Players, there is an immense amount of quality on both sides.

As mentioned, Dallas has David Ferreira, who has served as the team’s offensive cor­nerstone since his arrival on loan from Bra­zil’s Clube Atlético Paranaense in February 2009. Their backline is anchored in goal by Kevin Hartman, who was shafted in the race for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year this season, and who was the sole reason Dallas remained in the match with Los Angeles in the early going. Hartman has been perpetually stellar throughout his professional career, and leads MLS in career shutouts by a significant mar­gin. Striker Jeff Cunningham is always likely to provide a huge spark off the bench. Cun­ningham, one of few players in the world to have earned caps with two countries (the United States and his native Jamaica), is the league’s second-leading all-time goalscorer, with 132. His prowess in front of goal has earned Dallas countless points this season, and he will be expected to contribute if his number is called.

Colorado’s talent consists largely of play­ers who have been horribly undervalued in the past. Nine of the Rapids’ 11 starters in the San Jose match were cast-offs from other MLS clubs. The two exceptions, Kimura and Omar Cummings, were drafted by Colorado in the third round or later in 2007. Still, the fact that Colorado has made it to the final speaks volumes about the club’s ability to see diamonds where other teams simply see dirt. Cummings and his partner up front, Conor Casey, are absolutely the Rapids’ most potent offensive threats – in the regu­lar season, Cummings netted 14 goals, Casey right behind him with 13.

Sunday’s final in Toronto is sure to be an entertaining affair. Both Colorado and Dal­las are offensively-minded teams, finishing tied for second and fourth in goals scored, respectively. The weather in Ontario will be perfectly suited for the beautiful game, with mild temperatures and a cloudy night keeping things comfortable for players and fans alike.

Expect to see both teams gunning for one another after an awkward opening to the game. Both teams flourish when they can play a counter-attacking style of soccer, so there will certainly be some jockeying going on in the early stages. I expect Dallas to seize the attacking initiative, as their coach, Schel­las Hyndman, seems to be able to react better to in-game issues than his Colorado coun­terpart, Gary Smith. Though this move will leave Dallas prone at the back, Hartman’s tal­ents in goal should be enough to get Dallas out of some sketchy situations. I don’t have that same faith in Colorado’s keeper, Matt Pickens. Both clubs will certainly be fighting hard to lift their first MLS Cup, but in the end, I think Dallas has the skill and strength to get past Colorado, and they will be able to do so in regulation. Goals from Ferreira and Cunningham, coming off the bench, will overtake a strike from Cummings, and give Dallas the title, 2-1, a result sure to delight their long-suffering fans back home.