TORONTO -- FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids might not be marquee franchises that command the kind of buzz Major League Soccer would like for its showcase event, but here's a tip: You don't want to miss this one.
Sunday's 15th MLS Cup, which kicks off at BMO Field a little after 5:30 p.m. (ESPN and Galavision), could be a classic. Dallas and Colorado are fast, athletic, attacking sides capable of producing scintillating stuff.
There will be abundant goal opportunities, but with Palos Verdes' Kevin Hartman (Peninsula HS/UCLA) in the FC Dallas nets, there's no certainty of scoring. At least at one end.
Both teams attack so well, especially off the counter, that defensive approaches ought to be decisive. The team that does the best job closing space and preventing its opponent's attacking speed from making a difference is likely going to prevail.
Three keys to victory:
1. DEFENDING THE COUNTER
What's scarier than watching FC Dallas' quick, multipronged attack bearing down on you? How about Omar Cummings and Conor Casey racing past your back line.
Both of these teams can attack, and it's all about speed off the counter. MLS MVP David Ferreira orchestrates the Hoops' offense, and he's got dynamic attackers on the flanks (likely Brek Shea and Marvin Chavez, just like against L.A.) and up top (Atiba Harris probably gets the call again, although it could be 2009 Golden Boot winner Jeff Cunningham), with Dax McCarty making runs from midfield and superb support from outside backs Jackson Goncalves and Jair Benitez.
Cummings might be the most exciting player in MLS -- we'll put him in the top three, along with D.C. United's teen sensation Andy Najar and Seattle's Steve Zakuani -- and his partnership with target forward Conor Casey is the league's best. Adding to the mix veteran Brian Mullan, acquired in a September trade from Houston, was a big plus.
Patience and smarts are required. Push too far forward, and you could get burned. The bright move is to pick your spots: absorb and counter and don't let your defense get stretched by the other side's speed.
Dallas was effective shutting off space and closing gaps after going ahead against the Galaxy last week, and they'll need to be even better against the Rapids.
Colorado can count on a superb central midfield with Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz, and former UCLA standout Marvell Wynne's speed in central defense will be invaluable.
2. WING PLAY
FC Dallas uses its flank players so effectively, and it's going to be a challenge for Colorado to slow them down. Shea is so big and unpredictable on one side, and Chavez's ball skills and vision are impeccable; he's been at his best the past month or so.
Mullan and Wells Thompson, the Rapids' wide midfielders, must make like difficult for the Hoops' outside men, and Larentowicz and Mastroeni's contributions will be crucial. All could come down to how well Colorado left back Anthony Wallace steps up against his former club.
Dallas dealt him for a fourth-round draft pick in July, and he quickly stepped into a starting role. Now's his chance to reward Rapids coach Gary Smith for bringing him in.
3. NET PLAY
Matt Pickens is well under the radar, but the Colorado goalkeeper is pretty good -- and very consistent -- if not quite Hartman quality. He's been slowed by a groin strain, but it's really only bothersome when he kicks the ball. If he's at his best, the Rapids can pull this out.
But it could be a high-scoring game, given the weaponry both sides possess. If so, then Hartman probably is the key figure. He's playing out of his mind, stopping shots he has no business denying, and that has bolstered FC Dallas' confidence and gives it the edge.
FC Dallas 3, Colorado Rapids 1