Chicago Fire: Conor Casey
This year's MLS Cup had its slow moments, but the finish was action-packed.
The Colorado Rapids benefited from an own-goal in overtime and went on to beat FC Dallas, 2-1, on Sunday for their first MLS title at BMO Field in Toronto. Colorado's Mac Kandji punched the ball off of Dallas defender George John's leg for the game-winner in the 107th minute.
"Honestly, I don't mind how they come," Rapids head coach Gary Smith said during the post-game press conference. "If they're winners, it doesn't matter. The overriding thought is they must be under some pressure to make that mistake."
Kandji injured his leg on the play, forcing Colorado to play for about 15 minutes with only 10 men. Dallas had some potential scoring moments down the stretch, but the Colorado defense was up to the task, including a huge save from former Chicago Fire and current Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens in the 121st minute to turn away a John strike.
Rounding up the scoring, Colorado's Conor Casey tallied a second-half equalizer to earn MLS Cup MVP honors, and MLS regular-season MVP David Ferreira had Dallas' lone goal in the first half.
Here are some highlights and thoughts from Sunday's MLS Cup:
Pickens prevails: Between Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman and Pickens, it was the former Fire goalkeeper who had the busier night. Pickens came up with five saves, none bigger than the 121st-minute stop against John.
John's strike was bound for the inside of the left post, but Pickens dove to his right and lunged just enough to get his left glove on the ball and turn the shot away. Pickens made some other noteworthy stops, reacting well in the 71st minute when a shot deflected off a Rapids player, made a stop on Ferreira's 118th-minute strike toward the right post, and punched away a couple of key Dallas crosses.
But Pickens' back line deserves a bunch of credit for limiting his chances. There were several Dallas flurries where Pickens' defense blocked the ball from even reaching the goal area.
Pickens' counterpart, Hartman, made only two saves on the night. Hartman was the big story following his team's Western Conference victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy. In regulation, Hartman had the match's clutch save in the 62nd minute, diving to his left to deflect a Jeff Larentowicz shot.
Marquee contributions: So much was made about how this MLS Cup did not include the New York Red Bulls, or the Los Angeles Galaxy's Landon Donovan and David Beckham. But Colorado and Dallas peaked at the right moment and earned the big stage. Both teams' marquee players stepped up on the scoring side, as well.
Two completely different styles of attacking players showcased what they are best at.
On Dallas' side, Ferreira's uncanny knack for finding space led to the match's first goal in the 35th minute. Marvin Chavez provided a perfect cross from the right side as Colorado's Anthony Wallace allowed Chavez enough space to the right. Pickens tried to step up and intercept the ball at the top of the goal box, but Ferreira just got his foot on the ball and placed it into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.
For Colorado, Casey muscled his way around the offensive third all game, and in the 56th minute he reaped the rewards with a game-tying goal. Jamie Smith crossed the ball in from the left side and it was up for grabs among Casey, Hartman and Benitez. All three converged and were on the ground. The ball briefly sat on the pitch before Casey stuck his right foot out and poked the ball into the net.
The one marquee player who played only a minor role Sunday was Rapids forward Omar Cummings. By the 98th minute, Smith decided to bring in Kandji for Cummings, who was injured and was not effective in the second half. He did have a couple of noteworthy moments in the first half, showing some beautiful work with the ball in the 37th minute to nearly equalize the match 2 minutes after Ferreira's goal. Cummings also had a header that went wide left in the 29th minute.
Key non-call: With the match still scoreless, referee Baldomero Toledo was the subject of a non-call during the 27th minute. Casey and Dallas defender Jair Benitez tangled in the box and Casey took a fall. Casey and the Colorado side were fuming about the lack of a whistle and penalty kick opportunity.
The only thing that could have gone against Casey was that he made the initial contact against Benitez. But after that, Benitez kicked Casey with his left foot, then appeared to trip Casey with a desperate lunge.
Whether Casey made an exaggerated motion to signify the trip is up for debate. But there was contact, and Toledo should have blown his whistle. It should have been the first clear-cut scoring opportunity of the match, and it would have changed the tone of the game.
It's a moot point, though, with Colorado netting the win.
2011 playoff change: At halftime of Sunday's MLS Cup, MLS commissioner Don Garber joined the ESPN booth to reveal that next season will include 10 playoff teams, and increase from the this year's eight-team field. Garber did not have specifics about the system, other than to respond to how this year we saw four Western Conference teams at the semifinal round, and that it should not happen in the future.
"It doesn't make sense to have two Western teams playing in the Eastern Conference final," Garber said. "We will find a way to solve that for next year. We need about 30 days to figure that one out."
With two new teams coming into the league for 2011, the regular-season schedule will increase to 34 games. But why should the playoff field increase by two?
There is little incentive to put together a superb regular season. As long as you can survive the playoff line, MLS likes the fact that parity will create an equal opportunity for everyone. Garber was presented with an opportunity to explain how to reward say the Supporter's Shield winner, but he dodged the issue with ambiguities.
Increasing the number of playoff teams is a bit premature. A double-digit playoff picture would be more appropriate when MLS reaches 20-plus organizations.
Neither goal was produced during the run of play, but the Chicago Fire will certainly take a 2-2 draw against the host Colorado Rapids on Saturday in Major League Soccer action at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo.
The game's front line starters each had a goal -- Collins John and Brian McBride for the Fire, and Omar Cummings and Conor Casey for the Rapids. John's first goal in a Fire uniform came in the 25th minute off of Marco Pappa's corner kick, and McBride's second-half penalty kick tied the score at 2-2 in the 51st minute.
The Fire improved to 1-1-0 and now prepare for their home opener April 10 against the San Jose Earthquakes at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. Three of the Fire's next four games are at home.
On Saturday, Chicago played without defender Wilman Conde at center back, who was questionable for the game already because of a foot contusion. That meant another Fire youngster stepping into the fold early in rookie defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe.
"It's a very hard place to play," Watson-Siriboe said of the high altitude at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. "Plus they have two fantastic players in Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. Cummings is very quick and very fast, and I had to adapt to it. The first 20 minutes in the first half, it wasn't good. But the second half we did a lot better."
The Rapids had the upper hand early on when Cummings found plenty of space to hammer home a 13th-minute goal from long range past Fire goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra. Though Cummings' strike was top-notch, the Fire midfield and defense gave Cummings too much room to work with.
"I would say it was more of still learning how to play with each other, learning how to close the space and learn to push up as one," Watson-Siriboe said. "As time goes on, we will be more cohesive."
But in the 25th, the Fire responded. Pappa's corner kick was a perfect placement, with John notching the header to tie the score at 1-1. Pappa pinpointed the best part of the Fire attack because McBride was also lurking in the area, and only one Rapids defender was in the vicinity.
Colorado regained the lead when Pappa made a poor defensive decision and was called for a foul on the Rapids' Colin Clark in the box. Casey easily converted the PK when he placed the ball in the opposite direction of Dykstra's dive, giving the Rapids a 2-1 lead in the 41st minute.
The tables turned in the second half when Rapids defender Marvell Wynne fouled the Fire's Patrick Nyarko in the box. McBride netted the game-tying goal and Chicago held on the rest of the way.
Proper spacing on the field and strong run of play go hand-in-hand. The Fire looked like they fell shorter in both areas during this match compared to their 1-0 season-opening loss to the Red Bulls. The final score just didn't mirror this fact.
Chicago capitalized on its two scoring moments off of the corner and PK. But the Fire's attack was lackluster at best.
At times this looked like the Fire team of last season in that several stretches included playing some unncessary long ball, back and forth with the Rapids. Neither team appeared to be a tenacious offensive threat, and toward the end it was apparent that the Fire were willing to hold on tight for the road draw.
The Fire missed Conde in this match, both on the defensive end and in transition to muster some offense.
Next weekend's home environment will be a welcome boost to this team when it hosts San Jose. Hopefully for the Fire's sake, 2010's home slate will turn around from last year's 5-4-6 showing.