Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith had warned that the BMO Field pitch was bumpy and fast and perhaps not conducive to the beautiful game. Besides, there was something that was always going to be less than beautiful about this one, a match in Ontario in late November. Sure enough, kickoff temperatures of 45 degrees made this one, officially, the coldest MLS Cup final yet.
Speaking less officially, the biting winds sweeping off adjacent Lake Ontario made it one nasty son of a gun out there.
So two scrappy goals were the difference in a mostly raggedy game, one that saw Colorado's heralded strikers do very little all night -- right up until they prevailed in little battles near goal to dredge up a little something extra, lifting their club into history. Conor Casey's second-half equalizer was scored while he was on the ground, a scruffy little stick-away from close range when he was first to find a ball that two Dallas players couldn't locate. Later, Mac Kandji was the instigator in another roughshod little sequence, one that ended as Dallas center back George John deflected in a cross or a shot or something that Colorado's reserve attacker just generally directed toward Dallas' goal.
This final was like so many others in MLS and elsewhere, more about pressure and interruption than rhythm and pretty passing. But players still make the game, no matter what it looks like. So in this case, the most influential men weren't necessarily the artistic ones such as David Ferreira, FC Dallas' highly skilled playmaker. Rather, it was Casey and his bulldog ways. And, perhaps a little less obviously but no less importantly, it was Colorado central midfielder Jeff Larentowicz.
The man who came via an offseason trade was a man on a mission early, getting the better of his smaller Dallas counterpart Dax McCarty. He probably won more balls than every other member of the Rapids midfield combined. With Larentowicz zipping around to collect balls, Colorado had more than enough possession before the break. But the Rapids just couldn't find their strikers. Dallas center backs Ugo Ihemelu and George John were almost always perfectly positioned to deal with the high-scoring duo of Casey and Omar Cummings, creating a stalemate that only slightly favored FC Dallas.
Ferreira, just crowned league MVP, did have his moments. Among his substantial bag of tricks is the ability to drift and locate the space between the center backs, biding his time and keeping them guessing until the moment of truth. That's exactly how he found space last week to supply Dallas' opener in the Western Conference Final against L.A. He did just the same Sunday as fleet midfielder Marvin Chavez crossed and Ferreira burst between center backs Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne to put Dallas in the lead.
Still, Dallas never established that rhythm and possession that keyed its landmark 19-game unbeaten streak this year. Some of it was Daniel Hernandez's immobility; the FCD captain has been struggling with a knee injury and just couldn't move as he was earlier this year.
But it was also Colorado's tactics. While Cummings and Casey weren't at their best on the offensive end, they were disciplined and purposeful in attention to defense. By dropping back quickly they denied balls into Hernandez, the key linking man for McCarty and Ferreira. So, for much of the game Dallas was stuck, too frequently unable to locate Ferreira.
To further ugly up what should be the league's showcase game, referee Baldomero Toledo chose only to recognize the most obvious fouls -- and not even all of those. That's nothing new really for MLS referees, who always seem to prefer the rough and tumble. Toledo's leniency didn't benefit either team, necessarily, but it certainly made for a less attractive contest, with bodies banging and players allowed to push and carp like school boys.
"I don't know if we ever got that going," FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman said of his team's inability to pass with success. "I don't know if it was their disruption, or calls that could have occurred. The referee basically let the game be played by the players. On our end, we don't like that. But on their end, they like it. If we win the game, then they don't like it. It's the way it is. It's the way the game is, and I think our players are good enough to handle it."
Smith says soccer is about adjusting. He says his players can play a quality, eye-pleasing style when the day is right for it. But he suggested that perhaps it was his team's ability to adapt to the conditions and to the tone set from the man in the middle that won the night. But he also hinted that his team did its part to create conditions they might favor.
"It was always going to be tough [for Colorado] if the game was too open, with guys like David Ferreira, who just have the run of the game," he said. "We limited a very talented group of players to next to nothing. I'm not sure it was the greatest viewing for fans, because it was such a cut-and-thrust game.
"Now, did I want it that way? Not necessarily. But I tell you what now, this team is capable of mixing it some of the bigger, more physical sides. And we're capable of playing when necessary. To me that's a good mix."
Mix in a little serendipity and it becomes a better blend, still. Cummings was laboring with a thigh strain, so in came Kandji. He won a skirmish along the sidelines, beat Jair Benitez and somehow concocted the game winner. Then he left the field with a knee injury, leaving his team to defend for the final 12-14 minutes of the 30-minute extra time with just 10 men. Protecting a late lead is all about will and want-to, especially a man down. So, really, it was the perfect punctuation mark on this one.
Conor Casey: The game's MVP was easily the more effective striker of the well-known tandem (he and Omar Cummings). He hit for the equalizer and helped set up the game-winner. Casey may have needed to check his temper on another night, with a different referee. But for this one he was able to avoid the yellow card until the 84th minute, so he busily banged bodies, occupied defenders, prevented balls from reaching Dallas' linking players and was generally a nuisance
Jeff Larentowicz: He was a ball-winning machine, especially over the first 30 minutes, sticking in his foot with marvelous timing and working extra hard to get his body into the right spots. He was really trouble for the smaller Dax McCarty in the first half.
Marvell Wynne: While fellow center back Drew Moor managed things calmly, Wynne was there to make several important, athletic interventions when it looked like Dallas was about to cause trouble on the counter in the first half. Later he helped throw his body into the right spots as Dallas threw everything forward.
Marvin Chavez: Dallas appeared to be more interested in attacking the right, the side of lesser experienced fullback Anthony Wallace . Chavez, Dallas' right-sided midfielder, was up for the job. His first touch on the opening goal was bright and precise, and the cross was pinpoint perfect.
Ugo Ihemelu: Both Dallas center backs, Ihemelu and George John, were generally well positioned to deal with Casey and Cummings. Ihemelu was especially effective, as Cummings was mostly invisible.
Dax McCarty: While Jeff Larentowicz got the better of McCarty early, Dallas' best two-way man was brighter after the break, with more ideas and energy.