MLS Cup Head-To-Head

Kevin Hartman’s performance against the LA Galaxy in the semifinals was the exclamation point on what may have been the best season any MLS keeper has ever had. He’s 12-2-9 in all competitions, and his .62 GAA in the regular season is a league record. If FC Dallas win, Hartman will become the second 'keeper in league history with three Cups to his name.


Colorado’s Matt Pickens has had a solid season in net, making few mistakes and generally coming up big when the Rapids have needed him most. He’s not the type of 'keeper who will win a game on his own, but he won’t lose the game for you either. Gets down well on his left side, but not to his right – expect FCD to test him in that direction all game long.

The big “D” in Dallas stands for “Defense.” Even with a surfeit of injuries, FCD gave up just 28 goals on the year, good for third in the league. The central pairing of Ugo Ihemelu and George John are now fit and physically dominant, while left back Jair Benitez has had a solid season on both sides of the ball. Losing starting right back Heath Pearce hurts, and expect Colorado to isolate his replacement – most likely Brazilian loanee Jackson – in 1-on-1 situations as much as possible.


The pace and quickness of Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor, Colorado’s central defenders, means the Rapids are unlikely to concede as much space to FCD’s attack as the Galaxy did. LA was simply unable to cope with Dallas’ athleticism; Colorado won’t have that problem. On the flanks both Kosuke Kimura, who had the only goal against the San Jose Earthquakes in the Eastern Conference Championship game, and Anthony Wallace push forward well while willingly tracking back defensively.

MVP candidate David Ferreira deservedly gets most of the hype and credit, and the diminutive Colombian enganche deserves it. But it wouldn’t be possible without d-mid Daniel Hernandez, who sweeps in front of the defense, and central midfielder Dax McCarty, a terrier who harasses the opposition all over the field and excels at making the right pass, if not necessarily the killer pass. Wingers Brek Shea, Marvin Chavez and Atiba Harris – assuming he doesn’t play up top again – stay wide to drag defenders away from Ferreira and run endlessly off the ball.


The Colorado central midfield resembles FCD’s in a lot of ways. Jeff Larentowicz plays the Hernandez role just in front of the defense, while Pablo Mastroeni is free to range all over the park to create turnovers and hurry the pace of the game. The difference is that, while FCD’s wingers are expected to get into the box and find goals, Colorado’s wide pairing (most likely Brian Mullan and Jamie Smith) are tasked mainly with creating and getting the ball to their forwards.

Just as in the defense, FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman has used a rotating cast of characters up top as injuries and roster adjustments have taken their toll throughout 2010. The postseason has been no different, as incumbent starter Milton Rodríguez is out with a groin strain. That means the burden to lead the line has fallen on the mercurial veteran Jeff Cunningham and, surprisingly, right midfielder Harris. Both have produced, stretching the defense and giving Ferreira time and space to create.


Colorado’s Conor Casey and Omar Cummings are a throw-back to the classic “Big and strong, small and fast” forward pairing of choice during the ‘80s and ‘90s. In a league that has become increasingly effective at shutting down classic center forwards, Casey posted his third straight double-digit goal-scoring season. Cummings joined him with 14 in 2010. One thing to look for is Casey dropping into the hole as a false nine, pressuring Hernandez and converting turnovers into rapid-fire counterattacks.


Schellas Hyndman, 2010’s MLS Coach of the Year, has proven to be admirably adaptable and even-keeled. His squad is mostly veteran cast-offs and promising youngsters, and going into the season most would have said “2011 at the earliest” for a Cup run in Frisco. Yet he’s had them playing the best soccer in the league since June, and molded a team that can hit as well on the break as they do through sustained build-up. They’re versatile and focused, and that’s largely due to the efforts of Hyndman.


Colorado’s Gary Smith has, like Hyndman, been a model of patience in his two-and-a-half years at the helm. Smith saw his first task upon taking over the Rapids as building the morale of the guys who were already there rather than tearing down the roster and starting from scratch. That’s led to a core of players who know and trust the coach, the system and each other. Since soccer is the ultimate team game, it should be no surprise that Smith’s method has yielded such positive results.

FC Dallas’ approach to building their roster over the past several years has been to get young, hungry players who are willing to fill roles on both sides of the ball. Because of that, Hyndman can plug in the likes of Eric Alexander, Eric Avila, Zach Lloyd and a handful of others and expect his team to not miss a beat. Everyone knows their game plan and everyone, it seems, is content to play his part in it.


The Rapids went in a different direction with their approach to depth, building with experience instead of youth. Wells Thompson, Macoumba Kandji and Claudio Lopez don’t put up big stats, but all of them have bought into Smith’s tactics and all of them are capable of making a difference. Julien Baudet and Scott Palguta provide solid leadership and a presence on set-pieces out of the back, and allow Smith to swap formations if he needs to.

A three-game winless streak in October put many off of FCD’s scent when the postseason came around, but it’s clear in hindsight that the loss of form was due largely to both Hartman and Hernandez being sidelined with injuries. Turns out that when both are in the lineup, Dallas have lost only once all year – way back in May, 1-0 to the Galaxy in Frisco. That’s a hard stat to ignore, and one that speaks to a level of consistent dominance that’s not often achieved. Given all that, Dallas are prohibitive favorites entering the Final.


Being the underdog probably suits Colorado just fine. The Rapids have taken knocks for a perceived lack of style and an “easy” route to the Cup, and that seems to have only strengthened their desire to walk out of Toronto with the franchise’s first major trophy. They’ll have to force a number of deep turnovers, and Casey will have to conjure the form he showed for the US national team last year in Honduras to make that possible, but the Rapids have yet to give anyone a reason to write them off. Underdogs, sure, but not a sacrificial lamb.