Rapids win MLS title with toughness

On a frigid night in Toronto, an MLS Cup title was won.

It wasn’t won by the most talented team, or the team that played the most attractive soccer. It was won by the Colorado Rapids — the toughest team in this year’s MLS playoffs.

The Rapids’ 2-1 MLS Cup overtime victory won’t be entered into any beauty pageants. Colorado’s goals were ugly, and even the night of game MVP Conor Casey was ugly, but that won’t be remembered years from now.

What will be remembered was that Colorado forged a strong team that could withstand dangerous offenses and could always muster goals when they were absolutely needed.

FC Dallas came in the more highly-rated team, having played the best soccer in the postseason, but on Sunday night it was Colorado that beat up, wore out and eventually finished off a Dallas team that managed just one moment of brilliance on a night it needed more.

Dallas started so promisingly, with the type of attacking sequence that had become its trademark. When David Ferreira expertly volleyed a fast cross from Marvin Chavez to give Dallas the lead, it looked like it might be the opening salvo in a rout, but these Rapids have taken punches on the chin before.

Columbus learned that lesson when it scored early and blitzed Colorado in the second game of their first-round series only to have the Rapids respond and knock them out.

Colorado responded yet again on Sunday, with Casey playing the role of bulldozer. He muscled his way to an equalizer in the 57th minute before helping set up the game-winning own goal, started when Macoumba Kandji dribbled into the area and had a quick cross deflect off George John’s thigh.

The victory came on a night where Baldemero Toledo’s loosely-called match played into Colorado’s preference to bully the fast and nifty Dallas attackers. The Rapids disrupted Dallas’ attacking sequences at every turn, both with a defense that stayed organized, a midfield that outworked its Dallas counterparts and with Casey dropping back to contribute his share of hits. Colorado out-fouled Dallas 16-11, but the Rapids put in plenty of honest work to neutralize Dallas.

Ugly goals? Sure. Ugly soccer? Perhaps, but to call the Rapids undeserving champions would do a disservice to the resilience they showed and the work put in by some veterans who finally won titles after long and hard-fought years in MLS.

Consider Jeff Larentowicz, the former New England Revolution midfielder who had endured multiple MLS Cup losses with the Revs. He gave perhaps the best performance on the night. Whether it was shackling Ferreira for most of the night, or winning seemingly every ball in midfield, to clearing balls off the goal line, Larentowicz did it.

Consider Pablo Mastroeni, the former U.S. national team midfielder and long-standing Rapids player, who made his first MLS Cup appearance a winning one. He, Larentowicz and Casey were the steel in a Rapids lineup that triumphed despite a disappointing night from its most dangerous player Omar Cummings.

Consider Matt Pickens. The former Chicago Fire goalkeeper who endured a failed stint in Europe and returned to MLS to mind the net for the Rapids. He was outshone by Kevin Hartman for most of the night, but not before delivering his own clutch saves late in the match to win his first championship.

Colorado’s title run is a triumph of substance over style, strength over skill, and while soccer purists can argue whether that is a negative step for MLS, the Rapids earned their title because no other team could overcome the mental and physical strength provided by its leaders.

As much as Sunday’s final was a historic night for the Rapids, it will likely go down as forgettable for MLS. Toronto played the role of host well, right up until patches of empty seats began showing up throughout the stadium on Sunday night, and large hordes of Toronto fans fled BMO Field before the game was even decided. It was a far cry from Qwest Field in Seattle last year, when neutral fans stayed until the end on a night that wasn’t that much colder than the night in Toronto.

You can argue that there’s something wrong with having the seventh best regular season team winning the league title, and a year after the eighth-best regular season team (Real Salt Lake) won it, but it once again boils down to teams delivering when the trophy is on the line. Real Salt Lake and New York couldn’t do it in the first round, Los Angeles couldn’t do it in the Western Conference final and FC Dallas failed to do it in the final.

As each of those title favorites fell by the wayside and were exposed as pretenders, Colorado kept on playing, fighting and pushing teams into mistakes. The Rapids played the role of bully perfectly, and have a championship to show for it.

You can call Colorado’s championship run forgettable if you want (at least outside of Colorado), but the Rapids made it clear that talent and skill isn’t always enough to win a title. You also need some heart and some toughness and this year the Rapids had more of both than any other team in the league.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.