An Early Look at the MLS Cup Final: FC Dallas v. Colorado Rapids
There's been a lot of consternation since Dallas started to pull away from the Los Angeles Galaxy in Sunday's Western Conference Final about a pairing that league officials and ESPN might consider a bit unfortunate.
Dallas and Denver may be large cities (they anchor metro areas ranking 4th and 21st, respectively, in population), but in soccer terms they're small market.
The former Dallas Burn and the Rapids, who've sported three sets of colors in their 15-year history, have failed to put down meaningful roots in their home towns despite building new stadiums.
Years of consistent losing, dominant pro football teams and marketing that, for too long, seemed to focus on unreliable youth soccer families rather than people who attend games consistently and create some atmosphere, have reduced each club's fan base to a core of die hards.
Colorado ranked 12th in MLS regular season attendance out of 16 clubs. Dallas was 14th. Each fell well below the league average of 16,675. Neither club has attracted the attention of its local press. In fact, last Thursday FCD president Doug Quinn penned an "open letter" to area TV, radio and print media begging for coverage of his club's run to the league semis.
It would have been pathetic if it wasn't necessary.
The truth is, however, that concern over one evening's worth of ratings on ESPN or the attendance of a single game at a neutral site is short-sighted. Yes, both of those will suffer because David Ferreira and Omar Cummings are not as big a deal as Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Thierry Henry.
But soccer may be the long-term winner in Dallas and Denver. There are plenty of fans in both cities. If a good number of them start taking FCD and the Rapids seriously following their playoff performances, that will be worth more to the league then one night of decent ratings (Long term TV success depends on ESPN promotion, anyway. Look what the network did for the World Cup. Or poker.)
The Seattle metro area has half the population of Dallas/Fort Worth. Clubs like the Sounders are what gives MLS traction. The league needs Dallas and Denver to care. There's plenty at stake on Sunday, despite the lack of marquee names.
How They Got Here
FC Dallas -- Finished the regular season third in the Western Conference and fourth overall at 12-4-14. Eliminated reigning champ Real Salt Lake, 3-2, on aggregate in the first round. Defeated top-seeded L.A., 3-0, in one-game semifinal.
Colorado Rapids -- Finished the regular season fifth in the Western Conference and seventh overall at 12-8-10. Eliminated the Columbus Crew on penalty kicks after quarterfinal series finished, 2-2, on aggregate. Ousted the San Jose Earthquakes, 1-0, in one-game semifinal.
July 31, FC Dallas 1 at Colorado Rapids 1. The Rapids fell behind on a 22nd-minute own goal, but midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy responded four minutes later from the penalty spot. Ballouchy was traded to New York in September.
Oct. 9, Colorado Rapids 2 at FC Dallas 2. Dallas set a single-season record with its 19th straight game unbeaten as goals from Milton Rodriguez and Ferreira canceled out a pair from Colorado's Jeff Larentowicz.
1997 U.S. Open Cup -- Defeated D.C. United on penalty kicks after 0-0 draw.
2005 U.S. Open Cup -- Lost to Los Angeles Galaxy, 1-0.
1997 MLS Cup -- Lost to D.C. United, 2-1.
1999 U.S. Open Cup -- Lost to Rochester Rhinos, 2-0.
Colorado 1 at Dallas 0
Dallas 1 at Colorado 2
Colorado 2 at Dallas 4
Dallas 0 at Colorado 1
Colorado 2 at Dallas 1 (ot)
Dallas 0 at Colorado 0
Colorado 2 (5 pk) at Dallas 2 (4 pk) (ot)
Dallas 2 at Colorado 1
Colorado 3 (5 pk) at Dallas 2 (4 pk) (ot)
FanHouse recently reported that since the expansion of the CONCACAF Champions League in the fall of 2008, clubs that play fewer games during the course of a given year have a disproportionate advantage in the playoffs. This fall, five of the six playoff match-ups have been won by the team that played fewer games (in official competitions) in 2010.
The only exception was Colorado's win over San Jose in the Eastern Conference Final. The difference between the clubs was just one game. Only once in the past three years/20 series has a team that played more than one match more than their playoff opponents emerged victorious.
The difference in the MLS Cup Final is just one game. Dallas has played 34 games this year, Colorado 35.
The winner will be set up for trouble next season, however. The MLS Cup champion will earn an automatic berth into the 2011-12 Champions League group stage, meaning an extra six matches and three international flights. The runner-up will be seeded into the preliminary round, which means two extra games and a potential early exit. Only one team (the 2009 Houston Dynamo) has won a playoff series after playing in more than two Champions League games that year.
The Galaxy (Supporters Shield) and the Seattle Sounders (U.S. Open Cup) are the other two American entrants in the 2011-12 Champions League. Canadian clubs qualify separately.
Mark down Real Salt Lake as your early MLS Cup 2011 favorite.
Colorado has been good, but fortunate, in the playoffs. Dallas has been outstanding, and certainly will be the favorite on Sunday.
The Rapids benefited from Brian Carroll's penalty miss and Kosuke Kimura's seeing-eye cross, as well as a very favorable playoff draw, but no one will begrudge them their place in Toronto.
The foward tandem of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings has been dangerous enough to stretch the opposition (Cummings assisted on both Colorado goals against Columbus, and Casey scored one), and coach Gary Smith's usage of Brian Mullan and Kimura on the wings limited Bobby Convey's influence in the conference final.
Meanwhile, the midfield tandem of Larentowicz and captain Pablo Mastroeni links the team together effectively and should control the middle of the park far more effectively than Dema Kovalenko and Juninho did against Dallas on Sunday.
Dallas survived a brutal playoff draw, eliminating reigning champ Real Salt Lake and the Supporters Shield-winning Galaxy. And they're undefeated in the postseason (2-0-1), unlike the Rapids (2-1-0). Coach Schellas Hyndman's side has played confident, composed, almost error-free soccer, and has included the two best players in this year's playoffs -- Ferreira and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman.
Colorado knows that stopping Ferreira, who was masterful in the takedown of L.A. (he even made lumbering forward Atiba Harris look good), will be the key in Toronto. Ferreira was such a dominant force that an outclassed Donovan walked up to him immediately after the final whistle on Sunday night and asked to switch jerseys.
"They have one terrific player in the middle that makes them go," Larentowicz told The Denver Post, regarding Ferreira. "Other than that, they've got good supporting players around him. If we can limit him and limit his creativity, that's probably a good way to start for us."