Greg Lalas: MLS' final four are a worthy bunch - Sports Illustrated

Keep the faith: MLS' conference finalists a worthy, intriguing bunch

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For example, at the beginning of the MLS season, I predicted Real Salt Lake would finish second in the Western Conference and that the New York Red Bulls would win the East. Neither came true, so I flagellated myself over my previously bold, but now moronic, prognostications.

I came close with RSL, which finished third in the West, but the team gave me a heart attack along the way. Yura Movsisyan's playoff berth-securing, 90th-minute goal in the final game of the regular season against Colorado was like a defibrillator.

As for New York, I spent weeks in the middle of the season wondering what brain failure made me ever think the Red Bulls were worthy of being in MLS, let alone in the playoffs.

Even last week, after the first legs of their playoff series, I was convinced that neither of these teams had the necessary gumption, steel, tactical awareness and, let's be honest, luck to ensure their passage into the conference finals. (At what point will MLS drop all this conference final bunk during the playoffs? Please, Mr. Garber, can you send an edict down from on high that pits 1-8 seeds, 2-7, etc., and calls the rounds simply MLS Cup quarterfinals, semifinals and final?)

But today, I must apologize to both of these teams for my lack of faith. I failed them. I doubted them. Last weekend they earned impressive results and proved beyond any doubt that they are worthy. RSL's gutsy, attack-minded 2-2 draw at Chivas USA earned it a 3-2 series win on aggregate. New York's 3-0 thumping of two-time defending MLS champion Houston -- in H-Town, by the way -- showed the threat of flank speed and the blessings of a hot goalkeeper.

These two simply belong in the conference finals. Neither has ever reached an MLS Cup final, so when they face off Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium (Does this venue have a nickname yet? "The Mine?"), both will be fighting for history.

Houston's bid to make history by winning a third straight MLS Cup, meanwhile, was ended decisively. The mighty juggernaut looked as tame as a pack of orange tabby cats during the second-leg loss to New York. I, for one, am glad the Dynamo lost.

Nothing personal against Houston, its players or its brilliant coach, Dominic Kinnear. The Dynamo have been nothing short of fantastic the past few years, and they are still MLS' only hope in the CONCACAF Champions League. Houston has been classy, consistent and inspiring in its unrelenting pursuit of excellence and trophies the past two seasons.

So why am I tickled that the Dynamo have been eliminated? Because the league needed someone new to take the crown.

MLS needed someone nasty to reach the final. Someone who sparks the international imagination. Someone who ticks off opposing fans, while thrilling them at the same time. Unfortunately, Houston's steadiness, intricate mix of talents and downright niceness fails to stir the emotional pot. If sports is a story, then every league needs its antagonist, someone you despise and root again.

You can't really root against the Dynamo, ever, because they are skillful, composed and methodical. At times this season, they seemed too methodical, which is what hurt them against New York, but for the most part, their methods have been unassailable.

This is great for the purists. But history has no love affair with purity. Perfection is boring. We like nasty. Especially in the sports world.

Think about the greatest matchups of all time and who we rooted for? Colts-Jets? Broadway Joe and the Jets, obviously. Ali-Frazier? The loudmouth butterfly with the quick jab. Louden Swain-Shute? Duh!

All four surviving teams bristle with nastiness (and three of them have the bonus of international intrigue). It starts, of course, with Chicago's Cuauhtémoc Blanco. The Aztec god is as beautifully loathsome as it gets. He's the instigator savant who, should he and his Chicago Fire reach the final, will dominate the headlines in Mexico. Fingers crossed.

Then again, maybe I should cross my fingers in hopes of seeing Columbus' Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the final. The Argentine genius is less irritating than Blanco, but no less entertaining or button-pushing. He knows how to goad the referee into calls and how to make a defender look silly. How the 18-assist man pops up in space in the midfield is beyond me. You'd think, at some point, an opponent would decide to shadow him. But they don't. And he floats into the seam and delivers a dagger pass. Then he shakes his tufted mullet and sends a smile all they way back to Buenos Aires.

New York, of course, is blessed with the second-best striker in MLS history. (Jaime Moreno takes the title, if only for consistency and longevity.) Juan Pablo Ángel sometimes seems aloof on the field, but he gets into dangerous positions and is medically precise with his finishing. I'd love to see the Colombian do his goal-celebration bullfighter leap in the final.

For RSL, the centrifuge is Javier Morales. Another Argentine, he's like a younger Schelotto, complete with the quasi-mullet, the silky feet and the get-under-your-skin attitude. He can be weak sometimes, and whiny, but he had a goal and two assists in RSL's series victory over Chivas USA. Although he doesn't have the international star power of the other three, he is still an artist.

Is it a coincidence that the four centerpieces of this week's conference finals are Latino? I think not. (¿Donde está Señor Beckham?) MLS' recent return to Latin America is paying off, at least on the field. Whether it's helping at the gate, I don't know. But on the field, 2008 has seen a leap forward for the league, in terms of skill and the level of each game.

Now let's hope the conference finals live up to the billing. I'm going to keep the faith this time.