Commentary

Mile-high champions

Updated: November 22, 2010, 1:29 AM ET
By Jeff Carlisle | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- There are plenty of ingredients that go into a championship formula. Talent, guts and luck usually top the list, and in Sunday's MLS final, Colorado had enough of all three to subdue FC Dallas 2-1 in extra time.

The last of those elements was especially abundant in the 107th minute, when substitute Macoumba Kandji's shot deflected off George John for an own goal. But while it was a brutally cruel moment for Dallas, it would also be an injustice to say that Colorado owed its victory entirely to good fortune.

Dallas appeared to be in control following David Ferreira's 35th-minute opener. But with Jeff Larentowicz in fine form, Colorado reasserted itself and scored a deserved equalizer through Conor Casey in the 57th minute. Dallas fought back with some inspired midfield play from Dax McCarty, but it was Kandji -- with the aid of John -- who had the last word.

Barely.

FCD peppered the goal late and had some clear looks at goal, but Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens produced a superb save from a John shot. And Rapids defender Drew Moor cleared a Jeff Cunningham effort off the line to preserve Colorado's first-ever MLS Cup victory.

"This one feels good for a lot of reasons," said Larentowicz, who finally broke through for his first MLS Cup triumph on his fourth try. "I think there's guys on this team who have gone through a lot in terms of making it in this league, or being in the league for a long time, and I think everyone feels incredibly satisfied."

Here are five more things to take away from what was an enthralling encounter.

1. Dallas' improvisation paid off early: FCD's initial forays on the counterattack took on a distinct north-south feel, with Ferreira often operating in the middle of the park trying to get balls to the likes of Brek Shea and Atiba Harris. That partially explains why Colorado was caught so flat-footed -- and badly over-shifted -- by Jair Benitez's cross-field ball in the 35th minute. The Colombian's exquisite pass released a wide-open Marvin Chavez on the right wing, and his inch-perfect cross found Ferreira in stride to hammer home from all of 6 yards.

Of course, for all of Dallas' brilliance on the play, questions must be asked about the lack of communication within the Colorado defense. Drew Moor was completely unaware that Ferreira was ghosting through the Colorado penalty area behind him, meaning that someone -- be it keeper Pickens, defender Marvell Wynne or one of the Rapids midfielders -- should have given him a heads-up. That said, Ferreira has been punishing opponents all season with his ability to pop up in unexpected places.

2. Larentowicz helped turn the tide: The Rapids responded in typical fashion by upping the pressure and tempo of their passing. Central to both factors was the play of Larentowicz, who won countless balls in midfield and delivered some telling passes, while also stepping in with some timely blocks. He also helped neutralize Ferreira to the extent that the Colombian began drifting out wide to receive the ball.

"When Ferreira starts going wider and deeper, you know you're doing your job properly," said Colorado manager Gary Smith.

But there were other factors in Colorado's defensive success. Captain Pablo Mastroeni lauded the play of forwards Casey and Omar Cummings for making the midfield's collective life easier.

"The key was the two guys up front, and just taking away that deep-lying midfielder, Daniel Herandez, and just allowing us to get good screens," he said. "Then when [McCarty] or Ferreira got on the ball, it was easy to step up and press knowing that their outlet was going to be their center backs and not necessarily Daniel…We made the feel awfully small for those guys."

3. Colorado exploited Jackson's injury: FCD defender Zach Loyd enjoyed a fine rookie season, but when he was forced to deputize at right back after Jackson was forced off by a hip injury in the 34th minute, Colorado took advantage. Loyd's best moments came this year as a center back, and he was badly exposed on Conor Casey's equalizer.

Loyd's weak clearance in the buildup was easily tracked down by Jamie Smith on the left flank, and the Colorado winger easily danced around Loyd to center for Casey, who after surviving a pileup involving Ugo Ihemelu and Kevin Hartman, stabbed the ball home from about 2 yards.

4. McCarty fought back: Once Colorado equalized, it was Dallas that needed to respond and it was McCarty who delivered. He went toe-to-toe with Larentowicz, winning numerous second balls. And with Ferreira largely neutralized, he sparked the Dallas offense by accelerating the team's transition play. Overall, it was a solid night for a player who was at one point in his career nearly traded away by FCD.

"I thought I did the things that the coaches wanted me to do, and I thought I did the things I needed to to try and help the team as best I could," said McCarty. "Unfortunately when you lose, it's not good enough. It doesn't matter if people thought I had a good game. We lost the most important game of the year. I was on the field and I could have made more of a difference."

5. Rapids made an impact substitution: Kandji hasn't had the easiest of times since his late-season trade from the New York Red Bulls. While the player who went the other way, Mehdi Ballouchy, was hailed for his impact, Kandji struggled to make a difference. But on a night when star forward Omar Cummings was largely neutralized, Kandji came through when it mattered most, skinning Benitez on the right wing before hitting his shot off John and past a stranded Hartman.

Kandji injured his knee on the play, forcing his team to play the last few frantic minutes with ten men, but the midfielder was feeling little, if any, pain afterward.

"I paid a high price, but I'd pay that price any day," he said. "I saw a chance to take him one-on-one, and that's what I did, and got the best of it. Even though it hit somebody to go in, it doesn't matter. As long as it goes in the back of the net, and we got this trophy, this medal, the ring, I'm happy."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet.
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