By Mike Newell
As kick off commences in the first MLS Cup final held outside of the United States both the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas have come through the playoffs as surprise finalists. Dallas are making their first finals appearance, while the Rapids are in their second. Both clubs took different paths to get to a cold field in Toronto.
Dallas had a poor start to their season only winning 2 games in the first 2 1/2 months of the season, however after a 2-0 win over San Jose in at the beginning of June in which they played some of their best football to date, the hoops went on a 19 match unbeaten streak. Although they lost 2 of their last 3 games before the playoffs, Schellas Hindman’s men entered the league quarter finals as the in form side of the league.
As for The Rapids their season was a constant up and down campaign which saw them have 2 or 3 game unbeaten streaks. Then this would be followed up by an extended losing streak. Entering the playoffs as the 7th seed, they were expected to go out in the first round to the 2008 champions Columbus Crew. However Gary Smith’s side found their best form in the playoffs by knocking off both the Crew and San Jose to make the final. The goal scoring threats of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings were keys for the Rapids along with a no non-sense midfield lead, lead by Captain Pablo Mastroeni.
Dallas were favourites to hoist the Phillip Anschulz trophy at the end of the night. The club boasted a strong midfield with MLS MVP David Ferreira leading the way for the Hoops who were looking to win their 1st league title.
Both sides looked nervous throughout the first 20 minutes as neither club could really gain a foot hold in the game. The weather conditions and the slick playing surface contributed to some of the chippy play. Colorado were the first side with a really chance on goal with Brian Mullen sending a drive wide of goal. The game found its first bit of controversy in the 28th Minute as it appeared that Colorado striker Conor Casey was brought down in the box by Jair Benitez, however referee Baldomero Toledo waived play on to the disgust of the Rapids players.
All week the focus of Gary Smith’s defensive plan was to find a way to quickly close down David Ferreira and deny him space to create for others or for himself. For the first 30 minutes Smith’s men carried their orders out well as the Colombian tried to impose his influence on the game. Ferreira got his chance in the 35th minute as an excellent switch of flank ball from Benitez hit Marvin Chavez on the right. Chavez then played an excellent early cross into the box where the league MVP smartly finished with a left foot flick past a helpless Matt Pickens. The goal seemed to energize the game as both teams picked up the temp of play as the Rapids looked to equalize, and the Hoops looked for a nail in the coffin goal. Going into halftime the game was still in the balance despite the one goal lead for Dallas.
The start of the second half proved must better than the first, as Colorado began to get their foot behind the ball and ask questions of the Dallas back four and their in form keeper Kevin Hartman. They were rewarded 10 minutes after the restart as Jamie Smith swung an excellent low cross into the box for Conor Casey who on the second chance scrambled in an equalizer. Four minutes later Jeff Larentowicz hit a rocket of a free kick onto goal which forced Hartman into a fine save.
Before kickoff many pundits expected the 15th version of the league’s major show piece to be a slow boring affair between two clubs no one wanted to see in the final. As the second half progressed the game settled into a well played physical match between two quality sides. Dallas’s captain Daniel Hernandez, although playing with a bad knee influenced play with his range of great passes. This continued into extra time.
After a fairly tame first 15 minutes of extra time the game sparked back into life as Colorado sub Macoumba Kandji drove to the by line and chipped a shot on goal with was turned in by Dallas’s George John for an own goal. Kandji came off with an injury as the Rapids played the last 10 minutes with 10 men as Gary Smith used all 3 of his subs at this point. Dallas poured on the pressure as they tried to make their man advantage count and score their equalizer. The Hoops had two excellent chances in the final five minutes as John almost equalized for Dallas however Pickens ranged low to make an outstanding stop. Two minutes later sub Jeff Cunningham had a glorious chance to send the game to penalties as he beat Pickens, but could not beat Drew Moor who cleared off the line.
As Baldomero Toledo blew the whistle for full time The Colorado players and coaches streamed onto the field with somewhat stunned looks on their faces as they realized they had completed their mission, and a dejected George John stood rooted to his spot pondering how things went wrong on the own goal. By no means was this the prettiest game of football seen in an MLS Cup final. As Rapids Captain Pablo Mastroeni pointed out before lifting the Anschulz trophy, this was a “Go to work day”. Conor Casey for his display was named Cup final MVP, and as the Colorado players paraded the cup in front of their small but vocal supporters at BMO field you had the sense that they still didn’t believe they were champions yet.
Maybe they’ll believe next season when their kits get a shinny new star and a Scudetto on the sleeve.