By Paul Gardner
Quite a game. And there'll be plenty of differing opinions about exactly what sort of a game the MLS Cup was. Conor Casey, voted the game’s MVP (presumably for scoring a goal while sitting on his ass) told us “it wasn’t the prettiest game.” Minutes later, an overheated Alexi Lalas said "for me, it was the most physical MLS Cup in history" - and he meant that as praise.
Casey comes closer to the truth - this was more of a battle than a soccer game that was simply physical. Dallas wanted to play some stylish soccer -- and in the first half had some success doing that. Though not too much.
The Colorado game plan -- and anyone who didn’t work this out before the game can go straight to the bottom of the class -- was to disrupt the Dallas passing game.
The Rapids were, by and large successful -- though it needs saying that they were greatly helped by an inept performance from Dallas forward Atiba Harris, who -- with a poor first touch and sloppy passing -- was responsible for far too many breakdowns in the Dallas game.
I would have to question Schellas Hyndman big time on that. After Dallas had murdered the Galaxy in the previous game, Hyndman stepped in to claim a big share of the credit, claiming that his decision to play Harris at forward had upset the Galaxy. It never looked like a sensible comment, but Hyndman obviously believed what he was saying -- to the point of again playing Harris up front in this game. By halftime, it was surely obvious that this wasn’t working -- but Harris stayed on for the whole game.
So Colorado, with Harris as their Fifth Columnist, forced Dallas to play a much more physical, hard running, long-passing game. That’s what the game came down to -- and Colorado is better at that sort of thing.
In the end, Colorado won on a lucky break. OK -- you need breaks like George John’s own goal to win tight games like this -- it’s hardly a criticism of Colorado. Maybe they felt they deserved it, because they believed that Casey should have had a penalty kick in the first half when he was manhandled by Jair Benitez.
Yes, I think they should. Referee Baldomero Toledo thought otherwise -- and his decision was a reflection of his lenient approach throughout. Someone should do a study of refereeing in final games. We saw the problems magnified enormously in this year’s World Cup final when Howard Webb was presented with an impossible task of maintaining discipline while trying to keep 22 players on the field in order not to ruin the final.
By allowing all sorts of vigorous challenges, and keeping his cards in his pocket, Toledo tended to favor Colorado’s play -- but it worked against them on the PK decision -- because the incident started with a foul by Casey on Benitez, which Toledo did not call -- making it very difficult for him to call the subsequent penalty.
As to Colorado’s “luck” -- the game seemed to be heading for a shootout anyway, and the winner in a shootout is always going to be, in my view a “lucky winner.” So, while I feel for John, I don’t see any reason to belittle Colorado’s win.
For Colorado, it wasn’t the much-touted Omar Cummings-Casey duo who won the game (though Casey was his usual rough-house self, repeatedly -- and sometimes dangerously -- colliding with opponents), it was rather a sweating, teeth-gritting, hard-tackling midfield -- Jeff Larentowicz, Pablo Mastroeni, Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan. Work-wise they performed wonders. Soccer-wise ... don’t ask.
For Dallas, Marvin Chavez and David Ferreira combined smoothly to give Ferreira a superb opening goal. But even that move came after a long ball forward from Benitez. One is left with the impression that Dallas’s idea, far too often, was to bypass the midfield, which Colorado was determined to turn into a no-go area. Which was an enormous shame -- and a mistake -- for it greatly limited David Ferreira’s contribution.
And despite all the talk about Kevin Hartman, if he was a key player in this game, it was in a negative way, because of his failure to get more quickly to Smith’s low cross that Casey turned into the tying goal.
You can tell, no doubt, that this was not my type of game. But what happened at the end transformed a rather rugged and ragged affair into 15 minutes or so of intense excitement -- this must be what Lalas was praising -- for this was surely the most exciting climax ever to an MLS Cup.
It happened that way because Dallas, now a goal down with time running out, had to abandon any thought of caution. Or any notion of clever tactics, come to that. Now we had players with just one overwhelming thought on their minds -- goalscoring! So Dallas simply laid siege to the Colorado penalty area -- a siege that was given extra menace by the fact that Colorado was playing with only 10 men, having used up all its subs before Macoumba Kandji injured himself while provoking the winning goal.
Ferreira’s goal and those final 15 minutes are going to be what gets remembered -- there was little else particularly noteworthy in this game, if you exclude the blood, sweat and toil -- qualities that, frankly, become a bit of a bore after a while.
But what comes last is usually what gets remembered first -- that frenetic, chaotic, frantic maelstrom of activity around the Colorado goal, the blocked shots, and Matt Pickens’ diving to just get his hand to a shot from the unfortunate own-goal scorer George John, and Dax McCarty’s flicked header that seemed to be in the air forever until it just cleared the bar -- those breath-halting moments played out against a relentlessly ticking clock are what the 2010 MLS Cup will be remembered for.
A great night for Colorado, then, but not such a great night for soccer. The sport suffered here -- and Colorado’s contribution to that sad fact represents the darker side of their win.