MLS Cup final match-up: marketing nightmare, footballing dream
When Marvin Chavez stroked home to put FC Dallas up by three and remove any doubt that the Los Angeles Galaxy would crash out of the playoffs, you could hear the exasperated sighs all across Connecticut.
ESPN, which is based in Bristol, Connecticut, holds the TV rights to the MLS Cup Final and can't be well pleased that small-market sides in Dallas and the Colorado Rapids made it there. To be fair, most bean-counters associated with MLS probably afforded themselves a few head-bangs on their desks. A Dallas-Colorado match-up in the final is a marketer's nightmare.
It's also, for the record, going to be a cracker of a game.
You see, for all the Galaxy's popularity, for all their star names plastered on billboards, for all the tickets they sell, Los Angeles play drab soccer. It's effective, mind. Viciously effective. No one in the competition maximises free-kick opportunities like David Beckham, and no one is as ruthless on the counter-attack as Landon Donovan (who boasts a league-leading 16 assists in the regular season).
But watching LA grind out yet another win feels about as good for the soul as smoking electronic cigarettes Ã¢ÂÂ there's a lot of huffing and puffing, but at the end you still want a cig.
Dallas are the opposite. The team can't buy a fan-base. A lonely stadium exiled in the distant suburb of Frisco attracts an average of 10,815 fans per home game, and lured in a limp 11,003 for its lone play-off match. Capacity is 21,193.
FCD's season home attendance average was the third-worst in the league. However, an average away draw of 16,657 pits Dallas in the middle of the 15 MLS teams. Away fans know that when Dallas visit, you're at least going to see some classy ball. Marketing failures aren't necessarily indicative of coaching ineptitude.
Built around Colombian playmaker David Ferreira, Dallas marries South American sensibilities with an all-action American physicality. It took some time to weld the two together.
Ferreira, in an interview with ESPN, revealed that at first he missed "the pause", which is such a hallmark of the South American game. But he adapted. "Here in MLS, the ball is always going forward with a lot of intensity and rhythm," said Ferreira. "That caught my attention and I like it a lot."
Now the 31-year-old orchestrates at breakneck pace, on the counter if need be, like an expert marksman learning to fire accurately while on a galloping horse.
Around him, Schellas Hyndman has spent two-and-a-half relatively unsuccessful seasons building a team that only matches its enormous levels of stamina and heart with its technical ability.
Directly flanking Ferreira are Brek Shea, a towering blonde who recently became the first American born in the 1990s to earn an international cap, and Chavez, a searingly fast Honduran who Hyndman dubbed the mosquito for how he irritates defenders. The team bends smoothly to Hyndman's tactical flexibility, but always brings its trademark panache.
Give the random American on the street the choice, and he'll choose to watch that guy in the Armani underwear ads. Ask a hardcore fan and he'll most likely flip the channel to the Dallas game.
Colorado's case is similar, if less drastic. The team boasts very few marketable stars, but a solid core plays with quite some verve and under Englishman Gary Smith utilises thick wide play.
Up front, few strikers in the league can beat Omar Cummings for consistency and effectiveness, and not a one can match him for pace. Soaking up defenders is Conor Casey, who makes up for his jogging pace with a tree-trunk frame that he uses to bulldoze through frightened backs.
Behind them, Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz forge a sturdy two-way central midfield pair as capable as anyone at dealing with Dallas' five-man midfield swarm. (The two clubs exchanged draws in the regular season.)
Again, a state-of-the-art stadium reverberates echoes out in the suburbs of Denver. An average attendance of 13,328 visited Dick's Sporting Goods Park (thanks for at least attempting to stifle that giggle, they're a sensitive bunch out in Colorado), good for fifth-worst in the league and wholly unbecoming of the expansive pitch and attractive ball the Rapids play on it.
On Sunday, one of these two largely ignored sides will claim its first MLS Cup. Hardly anyone will bother tuning in. But those who do will be rewarded with a compelling, up-tempo match between two engaging, if forgotten, teams.