Five things we learned from the weekend's MLS conference finals:
Dallas is certainly a deserving side and will be favored Sunday at BMO Field. Not only are the Red Stripes the highest seed remaining, they will arrive in chilly Toronto having cut down the reigning champs (Real Salt Lake) and the Supporters Shield winners (Los Angeles Galaxy.)
And even those who did call an FC Dallas appearance in the 15th MLS Cup couldn't have foreseen Sunday's commanding margin, a 3-0 win at the Home Depot Center. FCD goalie Kevin Hartman kept the team alive early with three athletic saves, critical moments, because L.A. with an early goal is L.A. at its unbeatable best. So Hartman's heroic work arranged the stage for FCD playmaker David Ferreira to do his thing, scoring once and assisting on another while a team of tremendous belief, one that looked fitter and more mentally composed, buzzed purposefully around him.
"There's no excuses," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. "We were outplayed, beat on most matchups on the field, and we were outcoached ... We weren't sharp tonight. Our passing wasn't good. You can cut through all the BS -- we got outplayed on most of the matchups on the field, and when that happens, the chances of winning are not good."
Dallas was the last of the 10 original MLS sides yet to make an MLS Cup appearance. Even Colorado had appeared in one, the second one, as the late Glenn "Mooch" Myernick guided his Rapids into the 1997 title game. (Colorado lost that one; Myernick would later be a U.S. national team assistant under Bruce Arena.)
The less attractive subplot for MLS is that Sunday's contestants are sides of lesser glamour. They are two of the league's least supported clubs, poster children for the broken American soccer marketing model that once Pied Pipered teams further and further away from cities, out to the suburbs where, ostensibly the "families" would load up the SUV and come support the team. MLS leaders now recognize that it's more about the urban core -- but Dicks Sporting Goods Park and Pizza Hut Park are where they are -- 23 miles from downtown Dallas in FCD's case -- and nothing will change that.
On the other hand, perhaps a memorable run into the MLS Cup final will add some supporters in those markets, kick start a little more regional media interest and revive incentive for making the challenging trek to those outlying grounds.
But what about another goalkeeper who was picked up on the cheap this year? Kansas City dropped Kevin Hartman in the offseason, preferring Jimmy Nielsen, who had a solid campaign. But Nielsen didn't have a record-breaking season.
Hartman did, shattering the old MLS mark for goals against average over a season, finishing at 0.62. Not bad for a guy brought in to back up Dario Sala, a guy who considered retirement rather than take a reduced salary.
Funny thing, though, is that no one really said much about Hartman's record. That was partially because Hartman missed a few games down the stretch, a time when people monitor such things, wondering if so-and-so can keep the pace and break such-and-such record. It's also because the traditional media sources in Dallas pay very little attention to the team; so there was no local media to toot the team's horn.
Thierry Henry nearly doused the doings with his mad moment, injuring Hartman unintentionally. But the veteran 'keeper returned in time and it's fair to say that Dallas wouldn't be flying to Toronto this year without him. Sala simply wasn't up for the job in 2010, although he's been Hartman's biggest fan during his roadie roommate's memorable ride.
Dallas is in the MLS Cup because Ferreira keeps getting it done in the final third, because the team has speed, skill and fitness front to back ... and largely because Hartman keeps making massive saves. He frustrated Real Salt Lake last week. Sunday he turned away sizzlers from Juninho, Landon Donovan and David Beckham in the first half alone.
And while we're talking about Hartman, let's get this question on the table and start turning over some answers: Who, exactly, wasn't paying attention on this Goalkeeper Of Year balloting? Of course, we'll never know because MLS doesn't release its voting totals. Tsk, tsk, fellows. (MLS officials, getting clobbered in some prominent media spaces for this policy, said last week they would review it during the offseason.)
Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts won the 2010 award. He had a good season -- but it wasn't as good as Hartman's, and wasn't even as solid as Ricketts' own campaign in 2009. And this much is indisputable: Hartman made the timely saves that mattered Sunday while Ricketts was unable to do the same for the Galaxy.
The Jamaican international, an economic bundle of power, pace and eye for goal, has 22 goals and 25 assists over the last two years, not counting this year's playoff contributions. That's production that any club would take from a "second" striker, one playing bass to Conor Casey's lead guitar. One of those goals was a breathtaking run against the Red Bulls just a couple of months back, when Cummings picked up a ball 10 yards inside his own end and finished a committed run with a jaw-dropper from about 25 yards.
And yet, he has never been so much as an MLS All-Star, much less a Best XI type. That's largely because he plays in Denver, where praise from national platforms can be as sparse as topography on the high plans just east DSG Park. So, Cummings' terrific work tends to go less noticed.
But there's a lot of that going around Dicks Sporting Goods Park. Drew Moor has had a fantastic season at center back. Marvell Wynne 2.0, unwanted at a club that still hasn't made the playoffs, Toronto, had a great campaign after Rapids coach Gary Smith observed that the former right back seemed be better suited for center back.
And then there's Kosuke Kimura, who has been a solid right back for three years now in Denver. It was Kimura's cross on Saturday that slipped by Jon Busch into San Jose's goal to put the Rapids through to Sunday's final.
Kimura looked like a world beater against the Earthquakes, zipping up and down the right wing to supply Cummings and Casey. He was especially active in the first half, and he deserves full credit for the effort.
On the other hand, where was Bobby Convey? Most of Kimura's crosses were uncontested; Convey, San Jose's left-sided midfielder, was rarely in the frame (although he did issue a challenge on Kimura's goal). Convey certainly wasn't tracking with the diligence of Colorado's bloodhound, Brian Mullan. Mullan never let Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski wander too far from sight.
That's always been a knock on Convey -- as good as he can be, as we saw last week in New York, he sometimes freelances a bit too much for his coaches' and teammates' liking.
Speaking of Mullan on the right: that was a little tactical tweak from Smith that worked beautifully. Mullan usually plays on the right. For Saturday's "Eastern Conference" final, Smith deployed the reliable vet to the left and moved the less experienced Wells Thompson to the right. It was classic Smith stuff; the Rapids coach always adjusts his lineup situationally.
Of course, the big "tweak" came in the offseason in the acquisition of Jeff Larentowicz. Casey and Cummings were handfuls, as always. Moor was in charge in the back and Pablo Mastroeni managed his share of the central distribution. But Larentowicz was the midfield wrecking crew, crashing around busily and matching the San Jose high pressure that had Colorado unsettled early.
One final point on Cummings: imagine what he might have done this year and last with a true creator behind him. Dynamic as the Larentowicz-Mastroeni duo has been, Colorado's straight-line, four-man midfield represents Smith's English soccer roots; the system leaves little room for a real creator, a Ferreira, if you will.
Donovan may have deflected some of the cross-examinations to come with two little words late Sunday night. ESPN's Rob Stone asked Donovan on the way off the HDC pitch if he would be back in a Galaxy shirt in 2011. The reassuring response landed without hesitation: "Oh, yeah."
Still, that doesn't mean that he couldn't take another loan assignment to Everton (as he did last year between January and March), or anywhere else for that matter.
But there is a wear-and-tear factor to consider; at some point, a longer rest period seems prudent for Donovan, now 28. His last extended period of down time came after that troubled 2007 season with the Galaxy -- that circus of a year as David Beckham and all that starry drama blew into town. Remember, Donovan went on loan to Bayern Munich following the 2008 season.
And rest assured, if Donovan does pack his backs for Everton or elsewhere once again, all the permanent transfer speculation is sure to follow -- no matter what he tells Stone or anyone else. MLS commissioner Don Garber has said repeatedly that he wants Donovan in the league. But everyone has his price, as we know, and Garber won't stop Donovan if his heart gets set on a move.
Meanwhile, does anyone think that Los Angeles can sit on its third Designated Player slot for long? The Ronaldinho rumor won't go away. And every player in Europe looking for a new deal will float the Galaxy (or the Red Bulls) as a possible landing point, even if there's not a shred of truth to it.
So the Galaxy will do its part in making news over the short MLS offseason, one that will teem with even more roster development news than usual. The expansion draft for incoming Portland and Vancouver is set for Nov. 24, three days after Sunday's final. All 16 current clubs must submit a list of 11 protected players by Nov. 22. A month's reprieve gives way to the next transfer window in January, when teams get their second shot at the recently liberalized DP rules.
Then again, neither team in the 2010 MLS Cup has a DP. So a telling streak will remain alive: No team with a DP has yet to win the championship.
How the Rapids' set of four deals with Dallas' four and a half will tell all. Larentowicz and Mastroeni will stress containing Ferreira.
Dallas was the better road team this year, but only by a little. Meanwhile, the Rapids surely have some sort of "home weather" advantage. All that useful fitness for FC Dallas came from months of workouts in the blazing Texas sun -- but that won't help Sunday night in Toronto, when temperatures will likely be in the high 30s. (There's a chance of showers, too.) So, the weather could look a lot like it did Saturday in Commerce City, where game time was temperature 32 degrees for the Rapids' win.
The sides drew their two matches this year, 1-1 outside Denver and 2-2 in suburban Dallas.
FCD will surely be favored, which may not be a great thing. For one, it's a little different when people expect you to win. Besides, the playoffs so far have been all about the upset: Underdogs have claimed four of the six matchups so far.