Slightly more than two months ago, the Colorado Rapids lost 3-1 to New York in what appeared to be a relatively comfortable win for the Red Bulls and their famous Designated Players.
Yet after the game, it was the Rapids and their coach, Gary Smith, who were talking tough, insisting the game was closer than the score suggested, and saying how much they’d love another crack at a New York team that was then in ascendancy.
At the time, it seemed like hollow posturing. When the teams announced a trade the following day, with Colorado sending midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy to New York in exchange for Macoumba Kandji, most observers agreed that Ballouchy’s season, not Kandji’s, would trend upward after the move.
Ten weeks later, Kandji created the winning goal in Colorado’s 2-1 extra time victory over FC Dallas in MLS Cup 2010, while Ballouchy – and New York’s designated players – watched from their living room couches.
Turns out it wasn’t just talk back in September.
[inline_node:323888]That game against New York reinforced Colorado’s self-belief as the season hit the stretch run, and the move to get Kandji – along with the acquisition of former Houston winger Brian Mullan on the same day – proved to be turning points in the Rapids’ first championship season in franchise history.
Controlling the Narrative
FCD opened the scoring on Sunday night with a gorgeous move in the 35th minute. It started with a long switch from Jair Benitez to Marvin Chavez, and ended with league MVP David Ferreira redirecting Chavez’s sublime cross into the back of the net.
WATCH: Ferreira finishes the move
But it was against the run of play. Colorado had been controlling the game to that point, and had a reasonable claim for a penalty waved off in the 27th minute.
After Ferreira struck, however, Dallas took control, and the game appeared to be following the script of the previous week’s Western Conference final, when Dallas weathered early pressure from the LA Galaxy, then poached a goal (also by Ferreira) and went on to a dominating 3-0 win.
But the Rapids were following a script of their own on Sunday night.
It was not Citizen Kane. More like True Grit, as embodied in Conor Casey’s scrappy equalizer in the 57th minute.
Rapids winger Jamie Smith made a terrific surge past Zach Loyd on the left and squared the ball for Casey, who converged on it with Kevin Hartman and Jair Benitez. As all three players sprawled on the ground, Casey was the first to spot the loose ball. He reached a foot around Benitez and poked it home.
It was not pretty, but it was the 35th time in Casey's 42 strikes for the Rapids that his goal either tied the game or put Colorado ahead. Players don’t get more clutch than that. Casey would be named MVP of the game.
[inline_node:323894]As great a story as Colorado’s win was, the neutral observer had to feel a bit for FC Dallas.
FCD defeated the defending champs and the Supporters Shield winners (Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles) to get to the final. They played a stylish, attacking brand of soccer spearheaded by league MVP Ferreira.
They were also fairly unlucky on Sunday night. They only allowed three shots on frame all game (just one in the first half), and the goal that beat them came on a freakish deflection off of defender George John’s thigh.
John came right back and put an excellent shot on the Colorado goal, only to see Matt Pickens produce a highlight-reel save. Moments later, Drew Moor cleared a Jeff Cunningham shot off the Rapids goal line.
FC Dallas, like Colorado, were gunning for a first title in franchise history, and they were the league’s final original club to make it to the MLS Cup.
It just wasn’t their night.
Extra Time Good, Penalties Bad
This was the seventh MLS Cup (out of 15) to go to extra time. Not a bad record for producing nailbiters. (Hey, the Super Bowl has never gone to overtime in its 44 years of existence.)
Thankfully, the 2010 Cup did not become the third (after 2006 and ’09) to go to penalties.
Sure, penalties can make for riveting drama, but most fans would prefer to see the game settled in the run of play.
They saw that on Sunday night, when Kandji collected the ball on the right side of the box at the start of the second extra session. One-on-one with Benitez, he slipped the ball between the defender’s legs, rounded him, and toe-poked it toward goal.
Then came John’s fateful deflection.
Kandji did not get official credit for the goal (it was deemed an OG) but he created it, and he paid a price for it, picking up an injury on the play that forced him out of the action.
That set the stage for the thrilling final minutes of this hard-fought physical game, as Colorado, out of subs, had to play with 10 men against Dallas’s furious charge for the equalizer.
[inline_node:323877]And they nearly got it: In addition to the near misses by John and Cunningham, Dax McCarty flicked a header that bounced just over the crossbar.
But the Rapids – who had zero wins in the previous 50 games they had trailed at halftime – hung on for an unexpected victory and an improbable championship.
Season in the Books
The 2010 season began with a white-hot streak by Edson Buddle and ended with one from Chris Wondolowski – with an exciting U.S. World Cup campaign tucked in the middle. (Eight MLS players participated in South Africa 2010.)
The story of the year was an influx of designated players, yet not a single one of them graced the MLS Cup. Look for that to change in the very near future.
Two more teams will join the fold next season, bringing the league total to 18. At halftime of MLS Cup, commissioner Don Garber spoke about other changes in store for 2011.
There will be a balanced, 34-game schedule, and the postseason field will expand to 10, with a play-in round for the bottom four qualifiers that will determine a main playoff bracket of eight teams.
Garber also said MLS was considering moving to an international calendar, and running its schedule from fall to spring, as most European leagues do.
We like this concession to international football, while also welcoming Garber’s earlier guarantee that the American-style postseason will remain.
Because as the past few weeks have proven, there’s nothing quite like playoffs.