FC Dallas will be favored Sunday in Toronto (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), where temperatures for the nationally televised evening kickoff are expected to be in the high 30s -- with a chance of showers adding something else for the clubs to worry about. League officials will even have a bag of orange soccer balls handy in case any fluffy white stuff falls. It is November in Canada, after all.
Along the way to its first MLS Cup appearance, FC Dallas removed reigning champ Real Salt Lake and the Supporters Shield winner Los Angeles from the title chase. The team from Texas that previously had not won a postseason series since 1999 seems suddenly to have outgrown the underdog clothes it wore so well over two playoff rounds.
It's not hard to see why oddsmakers like Dallas: a speedy team with resolve and the calm discipline of its coach, who also happens to be a martial arts master, has two exceptional difference-makers. League MVP finalist David Ferreira recorded eight goals and 13 assists this year while goalkeeper Kevin Hartman obliterated the record for goals against average. Hartman allowed 0.62 goals a game, or just more than one every two matches.
But if Colorado is slightly less fancied, Gary Smith's team certainly can't be pigeonholed as some prohibitive underdog. Not with the league's top striker tandem of the past two years operating at such high capacity. Conor Casey and Omar Cummings combined for 51 goals over the past two regular seasons.
Neither team has a rich history of achievement. Dallas won the 1997 U.S. Open Cup and Colorado was league runner-up that year, and that's about it. So one team will make brilliant club history Sunday at BMO Field.
Goalkeeper: Who knew what serendipity would lay ahead for Hartman after Kansas City surprised everyone in January by dumping the veteran 'keeper? He was good for the Wizards in 2009, even getting a call-up into a January U.S. national team camp. But Kansas City officials thought they had something better and off-loaded him. K.C. didn't make the playoffs this year; Dallas, meanwhile, certainly wouldn't be where it is today without Hartman's heroics.
He was always a good shot-stopper, even if he wasn't always tip-top when asked to stray out of the six. This year he wasn't just a good shot-stopper; he was an extraordinary one. Hartman also has two MLS Cups (both with Los Angeles before his move to K.C.) and helps Dallas with terrific communication in the defensive third.
"Schellas [Hyndman, the Dallas coach] came to me at an awkward time late in the preseason and was willing to give me an opportunity to continue to play," Hartman said. "And so I really feel like on some perspectives, I'm playing on borrowed time, and sometimes it allows you to play a little bit freer and clear of mind."
Colorado's No. 1, Matt Pickens, was just what the Rapids needed, someone to manage goal with a little less drama than Colorado had seen in the less-stable Bouna Coundoul era. Pickens' reassuring season hasn't included as many match-turning moments as Hartman's, but he's a solid piece of a good team.
Advantage: FC Dallas
Defenders: Marvell Wynne had hit a plateau in Toronto. Drew Moor had fallen out of favor in Dallas. But Wynne and Moor have coalesced into a heady and steady center-back pairing for the Rapids, proving to be two more of Smith's smart personnel moves.
Wynne has been an especially intriguing figure this year, having moved into the middle after nearly 100 MLS matches at right back. He has the leaping ability to deal with bigger forwards in aerial skirmishes and possesses the recovery and closing speed that's a friend to any defender. Moor, meanwhile, just had one of the most complete seasons from any MLS center back. He's been solid all year in both primary elements of a defender's game: stop and distribute.
Rapids right back Kosuke Kimura doesn't score many goals, but he nailed a darned important one last week, supplying a cross that squeezed fortuitously past San Jose's far post to put Colorado through. Technically proficient, he likes to scoot forward when he can. So does Anthony Wallace on the left, although the former FC Dallas man (he moved west in a trade just this year) can get nipped occasionally by inattentive positioning. It cost Colorado in the first round when Wallace's inaccurate reading of one sequence let Robbie Rogers break away to score for Columbus.
It's no coincidence that Dallas began leaking more goals in October when first-choice center backs George John and Ugo Ihemelu were out with injuries. Both were highly effective in last week's surprising 3-0 win over Los Angeles, gobbling up the probing balls as L.A. began going direct. They also dealt physically with high-scoring striker Edson Buddle.
On the outside, Jair Benitez is perhaps the league's most gifted attacking left back, regularly combining to effect with midfielders Brek Shea and Ferreira. Impressive rookie Zach Loyd and versatile young Brazilian Jackson will again be the choices to replace injured U.S. international Heath Pearce, who was so strong at right back this year. Jackson struggled a bit with Landon Donovan last week, and probably isn't quite the defender that Loyd is. But Jackson is a better passer; Dallas' tidy possession takes a small hit when Loyd plays there.
Midfielders: For all the deserved acclaim of Colorado's fine strikers, a hard-driving midfield is most responsible for the breakthrough campaign. The offseason pickup of Jeff Larentowicz, one of the best moves in MLS, was the key. Paired with longtime Rapids fixture and former U.S. international Pablo Mastroeni, Colorado has two of the league's top holding midfielders playing side-by-side. With Larentowicz there to busily claim space and win balls, Mastroeni even added a little more offensive push to his game this year. It paid off in the first round when he crashed forward to score the Rapids' only goal in a 1-0 win over Columbus to the open the playoffs.
Brian Mullan found his way to Colorado via a midseason trade with Houston, where he was still valued but not in the long-range plans of a team in transition. He fits like a glove in Commerce City, still covering ground as well as any MLS outside midfielder, even at age 32. By the way, Mullan has four MLS championship rings, more than any active player.
Everything Dallas does spins on a balanced, five-man midfield axis. Daniel Hernandez screens the defense in the Red Stripes' 4-1-4-1 arrangement. Fans may correctly recognize that he serves as Dallas' enforcement arm, patrolling judicially, with just enough bite to make things tough while not running too far afoul of the ref's whistle. But his work as a calm, linking distributor is often underrated. The teams that have prospered against Dallas have positioned their forwards in such a way as to deny balls from defenders into Hernandez. Dallas is far more fluid coming out of the back when the ball finds Hernandez and his savvy first touch.
From there, of course, it's Ferreira's show. He sees the field brilliantly (witness the team-leading 13 assists) and his goals tend to be important ones, like his equalizer in the dying moments of a 1-1 draw in Seattle. Ferreira roams around as more of a second striker when Dallas is pressing its case offensively, frequently drifting wide to shake the shadow of menacing defensive midfielders. His passing and ability to hold possession with that low center of gravity set the standard for MLS creators this year. Dax McCarty has been at his two-way best in the playoffs, linking Hernandez with Ferreira.
On the outside, Hyndman must choose between a little more size and strength with Atiba Harris, a little more speed with Marvin Chavez or a combination of both in the feisty, 20-year-old Shea, who recently debuted with the U.S. national team.
Forwards: Colorado's attack is fairly predictable -- but that certainly doesn't make it easy to defend. The Rapids, lacking a true playmaker, generally attack over three well-worn routes. They look for early balls into Casey; or they'll look to find Cummings' diagonal runs from the right with vertical balls from the midfield; or they'll reverse that tact -- when Cummings starts his run from the middle, he's generally looking for balls behind the defense into the right corner. The Rapids won't work the ball around the midfield as patiently as Dallas will, but when they do hold possession, Cummings, Mullan and Kimura like to combine along the right, forcing defenders to make marking choices and hoping to spring a cross bent for Casey. Casey, who struck 13 times this year, is especially keen on near-post runs, using his muscle and determination to gain inside position on defenders. Suffice to say, a night against Casey is no night for the meek.
Just like in his midfield, Hyndman also has an important choice to make up front. With Milton Rodriguez injured, Jeff Cunningham had been the preferred choice. Given that Cunningham shares the league's all-time goals leadership (132), that's quite a second choice to have around. But Cunningham is hardly the prototype for playing a lone striker, more of a speedster and slasher than a target presence the system ideally requires. That's why Hyndman used Harris there last week, and it worked like a charm. Harris doesn't have the softest first touch but does possess other qualities that make the lonely target forward effective: He occupies defenders, he's physical with them, he causes turnovers in bad spots, he fight for second balls, etc.
Coaching: The Rapids' system reflects Smith's English roots, playing into a target man out of a 4-4-2 with a "straight line" midfield. Dallas' Hyndman, fluent in Portuguese and schooled in the Brazilian coaching ways, built a team that looks more South American. His selections reflect players comfortable on the ball, who can apply slow but steady pressure through possession retention or break hearts on the counter.
Neither coach is here because he's some sort of tactical savant who tried to reinvent the wheel. For the most part, both coaches have arrived in Toronto on the backs of thoughtful personnel choices. They patiently built quality across their roster and got their charges to buy into a system. Both sides work hard and avoid any proclivities for lame mistakes. Both followed roughly the same timeline, having moved into their current seats midseason in 2008.
"I'm two years into my tenure here," Smith said, "and the team has slowly but surely improved, and we've made some nice additions, and the guys that are still here, the core of the group when I started, have really developed nicely and have formed some terrific relationships with the guys that have been brought in."
Hyndman might have said the very same thing, just without the thick English accent.
Bottom line: Dallas' trek through the playoffs has been more convincing. While Dallas eliminated Real Salt Lake over two first-round legs, Colorado needed a penalty kick tiebreaker to squeeze past Columbus, easily the lesser of the MLS Cup finalists' first-round opposition. Colorado's 1-0 home win last weekend over San Jose was deserved and commendable, but not nearly as impressive as what Dallas did at Los Angeles. Playing what Hyndman called a "perfect game" -- surely a bit of a stretch, but you get the point -- his team's 3-0 margin had the Galaxy players barking in frustration at officials and kicking out cynically at Dallas players by the 80th minute.
The odds favor Hyndman's men, who are walking with a quiet confidence. If Hartman has one more night in him like the memorable, remarkable playoff stands delivered at Rio Tinto Stadium and the Home Depot Center over the last two weeks, a 2-0 victory for Dallas is a good bet.