TORONTO – Colorado Rapids, welcome to Major League Soccer royalty.
After 15 seasons spent watching other league original franchises carve their identities with success and silverware, Denver’s team is finally a league champion.
The Rapids used a scrappy goal from Conor Casey and a game-winning own goal deep into stoppage time to claw their way past FC Dallas for a chilly, chippy and ultimately cathartic 2-1 win over FC Dallas in the MLS Cup on Sunday night at BMO Field.
The title is the first in franchise history for Colorado, who’ve overhauled nearly everything except their team name since their only other MLS Cup appearance in 1997. But whether it was the team logo (they’ve had three), the coach (they’re on their fifth), or their team colors (from green and blue then to burgundy and sky blue now), nothing seemed to finally do the trick until Sunday night.
It certainly wasn’t pretty, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t historic. Colorado substitute forward Macoumba Kandji carved his way past FC Dallas defender Jair Benitez and poked a shot that deflected off the leg of FCD defender George John and past goalkeeper Kevin Hartman for the game-winner in the 107th minute in front of a reported crowd of 21,700 on the shore of Lake Ontario.
It was good enough to win what was largely a scrappy and physical battle of attrition probably better suited for a prime-time hockey game in Toronto than a soccer match.
The game was the seventh MLS Cup in league history to be settled in overtime or in penalty kicks, and the fourth that needed an extra session since 2005. Real Salt Lake – Colorado’s increasingly bitter rival who are now second in the pecking order on the suddenly thriving Rocky Mountain soccer scene – won the title in 2009 in penalty kicks.
Casey was named MVP after a physical and effective night spent banging heads with John – literally. The hulking Colorado forward was floored twice following collisions with John, and looked to be in serious trouble after a collision buckled both players to the ground during first-half stoppage time.
FC Dallas, meanwhile, took their lumps and eventually came up short in their quest for a first MLS title in franchise history. Despite a gorgeous goal in the 35th minute from league MVP David Ferreira, Dallas struggled to find enough magic or the final touch again to push them to a win in the first MLS Cup appearance since the club debuted with the rest of the MLS original franchises in 1996.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their chances. John returned after his unlucky gaffe to nearly even the match in the 120th minute, but his right-footed blast was steered just wide by Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens on easily his best save of a relatively quiet night. Jeff Cunningham also nearly evened it up in the waning seconds, but his shot at glory was cleared off the line by Rapids defender Drew Moor.
The game was scrappy from the opening whistle, but devolved into a grudge match in the second half. Casey and FC Dallas midfielder Daniel Hernandez were in the mix for much of the rough stuff, and Casey earned a yellow card in the 84th minute during a brief altercation with FCD’s Jair Benitez, who also earned a yellow.
Hernandez and late Colorado sub Wells Thompson mixed it up during stoppage time, while Jamie Smith picked up a yellow for a reckless tackle before he was eventually subbed out in the last minutes of regulation.
Even Kandji had to be subbed out after his game-winning effort due to the game’s physical nature. The former New York Red Bulls midfielder was hobbled when he caught a cleat to the ankle on the game’s decisive play, and he never returned to the fray after he was assisted off the field.
Casey’s goal was emblematic of the night, and rallied the Rapids back into the match after Ferreira and FCD carried the game’s momentum into the half. Scottish international Jamie Smith worked his way into the penalty box and skipped a cross to Casey, who saw his first shot snuffed out by Hartman before he poked the rebound home out of a scrum in front of the Dallas net.
It was Casey’s second goal of the postseason and probably the US international at his best - gutsy but hardly ever gorgeous.
Ferreira’s goal was a study in contrast, a pitch-perfect finish to a dynamic buildup from MLS Coach of the Year Schellas Hyndman’s group. FCD midfielder Marvin Chavez whipped a right-footed cross into the box from the right flank directly to the left foot of Ferreira, who streaked in between Colorado defenders Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne before thumping a volley past Pickens.
The goal was the second in as many playoff games for Ferreira, who also scored the opening goal of FCD’s emphatic 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Championship.
But it didn’t stand up against a gutsy and determined Colorado team, which was the last to qualify for the postseason this year and had to grind out wins over the Columbus Crew and the San Jose Earthquakes to punch their ticket to Toronto.
Sunday night was more of the same from a club which embraced their role as underdogs and outsiders this season in MLS, a place where they’ve spent long stretches in neutral while other league originals sped right by.
But not anymore. When the Colorado players paraded in the glitter and glory at BMO Field with a chilly wind slicing through the celebration, the Rapids probably never even felt a breeze. Maybe it was finally just a breath of fresh air.