Four teams are still alive in the quest for the MLS Cup.
I was fairly accurate with what I thought would happen in the East. In the West, the Los Angeles-Seattle series wasn't as close as I expected and FC Dallas just keeps finding the will to win, reminding me of the old Dallas Burn team of 1999. We came in and upset the best team in the league in Chicago, who had won the title the year before.
Nobody was picking us to get by Sigi Schmid and Los Angeles that year in what at that time was a three-game playoff series. We felt there was no stopping us, but we knew LA would be tough. They had the marquee names and we had a group that played together as a team in every way.
Don't get me wrong. We had studs in players such as Jason Kreis. In fact, that 1999 team is eerily similar to the 2010 FCD side. A foreign forward who was new to the league named Ariel Graziani quickly made an impact, like Milton Rodriguez. Oscar Pareja was our David Ferreira. We had outstanding goalkeeping which often saved an improving defense. Eric Dade compared to Ugo Ihemelu.
The biggest difference now, however, is this is a one-game knockout round. I would have much preferred that back then. So many things can happen in a three-game series. I always felt our series with Chicago was one of the great ones in the history of the league. You had the drama of us tying and then whipping the Fire in the opener, only to have them return the favor at home, forcing a third game.
If this year's Salt Lake-Dallas series would have been three games, it would have changed the whole complexion of how the teams approached the second game. There is also the wear and tear of a tight contest and the increased effect of the referees. In a three-game series, more cards are likely, which means you have a greater likelihood of losing players for games in that series or the next one -- which is what happened to us in the final game in LA.
You don't see the accumulation of yellow-card points in a one game playoff or aggregate series near as often now, so your best players stay on the field.
But enough about my thoughts of the past. I'll look at Dallas and LA first because to me the winner of MLS cup comes from there.
Dallas to me is playing like the Dallas of '99. They are the hottest team in the league, but in a unique way. They are really playing as a team, and contributions are coming from a lot of different places. They are doing it by committee.
The two key players are clearly Kevin Hartman and David Ferreira, who has been outstanding. The only team that has matched up with him all season is LA, and I would argue they did it much better before David Beckham returned. There are not many teams that have someone in the middle with the engine to handle Ferreira's slicing runs. His ability to find the spaces in between the back line and the midfield is fun to watch.
Hartman is the single most important reason Dallas has advanced this far. He has revitalized an improving back line, which to me still has hidden issues. He has also sparked what appeared to be a career winding down. He has been outstanding, even after the injury, and without him Dallas doesn't get past RSL. The Hartman factor will be the biggest in this game.
LA has seemed to have Dallas' number so far this year. The Galaxy is one of the few teams that usually doesn't give up the counter, an area in which Dallas has been so good at this season. LA forces you to play defense in numbers, yet it doesn't commit large numbers in the attack, which means they don't get stretched as much.
Additionally, Bruce Arena's teams have always been great at taking the early foul. If you watch an Arena-coached team and pay close attention to the first player on the ball, you will notice he will often commit the harmless foul far away from his goal just when they lose possession, breaking your rhythm and frustrating you just enough to keep from exposing the areas they've left open. They are masters at the cheap foul and no matter what anyone thinks of that tactic it reeks of attention to detail and can be vital against a team like Dallas. LA can be suspect in the back, but this tactic has them dealing with a slow-buildup Dallas, which is mediocre, rather than the off-to-the-races Dallas, which has given many teams fits.
In attack, LA has some weapons in bunches with Landon Donavan and the service of David Beckham. I think another reason that they have found a way to get the better of Dallas is because they do little things well but in sporadic fashion. Dallas often gets surprised when it is in control of the ball, losing the little discipline it takes when you have a lot of the play. Landon and company can hide for long periods of time but strike at any moment with one ball, one run, or one service.
It is not just the individual weapons but they are also precise on set pieces, which is the Achilles' heel of Dallas, and can be the difference in a tight game. It is also the place the red-hot Hartman is most vulnerable, in traffic, bodies flying in front of him and obstructing his ability to get to the ball.
Any way you shake it, in a one-off game anything can happen and I like Dallas' ability to overcome adversity. It has lost twice to LA, and it's tough to beat a team three times in a season. Dallas is due to get to its first final since the U.S. Open Cup of '99 and their first MLS cap. I have a good feeling about Bruce this year, and LA has the lost-on-penalties motivation to get back to the final. LA is at home, but this is so tight I am going with my heart in this one, picking Hartman standing on his head with Dallas in PKs going to MLS cup.
The East went pretty much how I expected, with Columbus struggling to score and New York struggling to play, but both upsets are still impressive. The style of both Colorado and San Jose lends to a tight, grind-it-out playoff, which while not fun to watch is often effective.
No jumping on the soap box here, but there was a strong attacking directive early in the league's existence in which, in no uncertain terms, the powers that be made it clear you were to play with a certain attacking conviction which they believed would help sell the product.
The league had matured to the point where, like every other league, winning takes precedence. Yet I miss that "attack" mandate in series like this. There is a fine line between taking a stand and, like an Arsenal for example, play a certain style no matter what to get results.
More so for Colorado than San Jose, but both have a grind-it-out mentality and a couple of players that in the right situations have enough talent to get you a result. I love this game so much that I can enjoy the collective effort and nuances in the performances of these teams, but I am not sure everyone, especially the casual fans, can. Of course, fans are often influenced by results, but if the results are not always good they often don't come back. And there are still a few examples in the league where it is much harder to get the fans back than to lose them.
On to the matchup. San Jose is getting timely goalkeeping from Jon Busch and the defense is hit-ord-miss, but Bobby Convey has reemerged as a force. Like many similar-styled teams, it has people who can serve a quality ball or break down an opponent and a player who can get on the end of things.
You have to love the Chris Wondolowski story even if you don't like San Jose. He has been fun to watch and has really emerged as a finisher, which is just what san Jose needs if it is going to get by the taxing battle mentality of Colorado. Make no mistake, the Colorado defense can be exposed, but more often than not their success is a grinding game where it keeps things tight and finds a way to get Conor Casey or Omar Cummings on the end of things.
I am afraid this will be that kind of game because in many ways San Jose has been similar to Colorado but it doesn't do it as well. The Quakes don't have the size or the pace in their back line to deal with the Rapids' size. So for that reason, I have to go with Colorado.
In the end, all of these teams outside of LA are in new territory. While San Jose and Colorado have been there, it was the San Jose that is now in Houston and for Colorado, the last visit came close to 13 years ago. Those two along with Dallas could consider what they have accomplished and just be happy to be there. They have to play their best and mimic what they did to get here, or LA will hold the trophy.
Dave Dir managed the Dallas Burn from its inaugural season in 1996 until 2000.