Like many sports, title games in soccer never seem to be as climactic as the games leading up to them. Whether it's the pressure of not wanting to give the other team a chance to win or the players just feeling the pressure of the situation, finals seem to to be played extremely close to the vest.
I remember our 1997 US Open Cup Final like it was yesterday. (I guess I have to, since everything I read says Dallas has not won a major soccer championship since the Dallas Tornado.)
I am very proud of that title. At the time DC was the heavy favorite and nobody had beaten them for a final of any kind. We had thought we were in line for the double and when Colorado somehow upset us in the Conference Championship the Open Cup took on even more importance for us.
The '97 Open Cup was played in Indianapolis in front of a sold out crowd in a fairly small stadium by today's standards. Still, the atmosphere was electric. Our team was extremely loose, almost to the point of over confidence. Only a few players seemed to be feeling the pressure and it was surprising who they were.
Alain Sutter for one didn't seem to respond well to pressure in those days and had sat out three quarters of the Colorado upset. It was curious that in this final he also acted as if he didn't want to be there and was extremely reserved, but given the Colorado series that might have been my imagination working on me.
Other players like Gerell Elliott and Zarco Rodriguez seemed like they were ready to get on with it, as if they had a date with destiny. It's amazing how when you hit the real pressure what you learn about players. Some do not respond to those situations well, even when they are the best players for an entire season. That added bit of pressure seems to transform them. You can read it in your opponent as well.
I had never lost a final as a coach, all though I have lost enough trying to get there. I had been in four finals as a professional coach before the Open Cup and that being my fifth I felt very confident. Of course it would have been nice to make even more finals in MLS. I still consider myself lucky in those situations and a good reader of what it takes to win it.
We came into the Open Cup a very hot team, even having lost the Conference Championship. We had something to prove and we wanted to prove it against the best, which was clearly DC at that time. DC had won back to back MLS Cups and the previous Open Cup.
I can remember talking to Bruce Arena before the game, along with Cacho Cordoba, my long time friend and assistant. Bruce has always been a very confident guy when you talk to him. Some people get the wrong impression of that, feeling he's arrogant, but I always found it motivational, even understandable, and his sarcasm humorous.
This time however, when we were finished talking, Cacho mentioned to me that Bruce acted extremely unusual. He was humble to the point that we walked away thinking he didn't have a very good feeling about his team that day. It was very un-Bruce like. I told Cacho I had the same impression and although we can't be sure if it was true, we wondered if he had gotten a bad read about his teams mentality coming into the game. The point being that the pressure of the final often allows you to tell right away, from the locker room to the warm up, exactly how the game is going to go for your team.
I have watched thousands of games and in normal games your team can have a terrible warm-up and come out and play the complete opposite. A final, and I mean the final game, is like no other. Players appear to wear their attitudes on their sleeve as all their work comes to fruition. Some embrace it, some accept it, and some run from it, but the finality of the situation seems to put it out in the open.
This final seems to have the potential to be a great one. Yet missing is a team with experience. What we have is two teams coming into the game with equal footing, so to speak, with both teams beating favored opponents to get here.
Colorado may have had the easier path, similar to Real Salt Lake last year, but the Rapids still had to beat two teams that had been better than them the entire season. They did it with two outstanding front runners who really have found a connection and a midfield of buzz saws mowing down opponents attacking options and proving quality service.
Pablo Mastroeni has been outstanding to say the least and his efforts against San Jose showed a maturity that he has lacked in MLS over the years. Not just a hammer but a precise technician creating a link between the backs and the forwards while diffusing forays from the opponents quickly before they ever became any kind of a threat.
Their much maligned back four seems to be hitting full stride at just the right moment. Marvell Wynne's move to the middle and the emergence of Kosuke Kimura on the outside have not only made this team better defensively in front of Matt Pickens, but have given them much better balance. In a excellent piece of coaching by Gary Smith, he used Wynn's speed to balance Drew Moore's intelligence and has added better attacking options than Wynne on the flanks where Wynne's service and feet were always questionable.
Did I forget to mention the flanks in the midfield? While a much more direct, get the ball wade, and quality service in the mixer team, they do what they do well and have two guys in Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan who will be a hand full for Dallas. They know how to get behind you and get quality service in, or get on the end of things on the weak side.
They also have two forwards in Omar Cummings and Conor Casey who have great balance, allowing them to stretch an opponent as well as play off them, and both have a knack for getting on the end of balls in the box.
There are some hidden wild cards I need to mention in Anthony Wallace and the locally popular Drew Moore being dumped from his home town team for questionable reasons. Both should have extra motivation toward the man who dumped them. I don't think it will be enough but you know it has to be in the back of their heads and I expect them to be flying.
FC Dallas, on the other hand, takes a back seat to nobody. This team is a true team that has played with character the entire season and one that went through the two best teams in the league to get here.
The prevailing opinion from much of the soccer experts through the season had been that they had done it with smoke and mirrors because of all the ties, but those ties are very deceptive. The beauty is in the fact that where they're good they are extremely good and force you to deal with their strengths rather than allow you to expose their weaknesses. And if you somehow exposed them they found a way to get a point. They just refused to lose.
In attack, they kind of put it in your face to say "you can't stop this" with the confidence of their leader. They have guys that can score up top but haven't been consistent, but they don't care. They just find a way to get it done.
In the midfield, they throw a plethora of players at you second to none. They can hit you from any position and are seven deep in a five man midfield. Ferreira steals the show and his runs are so difficult because you must not only have a midfielder who can keep the play in front of him but must also have pace to handle the diagonal runs in behind the midfield.
Brek Shea has weaknesses defensively but it's hard to expose them when he is allowed to attack with reckless abandon, putting so much pressure on you to defend while he is trying to get behind you. If he is having an off night you have Marvin Chavez who can do the same but might be even better at coming inside, combining and creating a scoring chance. If that is not working there is the workmanlike play of Atiba Harris. He is long, lanky, strong, can get behind you, and is great at coming in on the weak side on service.
It sounds like a lot, but the balance might be even more impressive and that comes from Dax McCarty and Daniel Hernandez. Hernandez is not able to cover the ground he used to and is content to sit in there and anchor the first line of defense. He bridges the gap to the defender and keeps them from being left on an island like the Dallas team of last couple years.
McCarty is the perfect tweener. He does the pesky defensive work of a defender, resembling a gnat you can't seem to wave off, especially when Jair Benitez or any of the flank players make those endless runs into attack. And yet McCarty has the excellent ability to connect passes and connect the defense to the attack.
If you need a little extra late in the game we haven't even mentioned the super sub Eric Avila who knows his role and is very good a it.
This is a back four that takes risks and can get exposed on the flanks, which leads us to maybe the most important part of the match up. The two center backs are very sold and have speed to go with aggression. When they do make mistakes occasionally on the ball they have a goalkeeper who is on fire, playing the best of his career.
I would argue that the LA Galaxy game, as well as the Salt Lake game, if not for the play of Kevin Hartman the result would have, or at least could have, ended very differently. It was key saves by Hartman when the opponents were in control and applying a lot of pressure that kept Dallas in the match and allowed them to turn the pressure the other way.
So we come down to two and when you put these two team together the match ups are intriguing. In the attack they are two very different teams and they both seem to play well into the others weaknesses.
Colorado is good on the flanks where Dallas likes to send people forward often leaving space wide behind their backs. Dallas has a multi-pronged attack, can score by committee, and has attacking midfielder that can force Colorado's recovery to look like the dogs chasing the rabbit at the dog track. This could be a wide open game, end to end, with both teams creating a multitude of chances.
Alas that is only my hope as it is a final. Games like this can be hampered by the aforementioned pressure. What makes a high score less likely is both keepers are playing well..... but Hartman? Come on? He is ridiculously good right now and has the chance to add to his four MLS Cup memories and stick it to the people who said he was done.
I don't think there is any question Dallas has been the stronger team and has the most weapons, but that doesn't always matter in a final. It is a battle of wills.
This truly has the chance to be a great final if both teams decide to come and play the way they got here. If that happens it favors Dallas, who I have to pick to win and get the coach with "great soccer knowledge" that which has eluded him in the past. I believe Dallas has the horses and will have it's first MLS Cup.
Just don't call it the first championship! Just the first one with the FC Dallas name. No one will be more proud than the coach who started the Burn from scratch.