TORONTO — The MLS playoffs began with the tantalizing prospect of a glamorous championship match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls, the highest-profile clubs with the most intriguing story lines and holders of the conferences' top seeds.
Instead, when the MLS Cup commences Sunday evening at BMO Field, the league will settle for this: FC Dallas against the Colorado Rapids, teams that not only lack national resonance, but have also become almost immaterial in their local markets.
On the surface, the pairing of unnoticed clubs with largely obscure players in the league's showcase match was a massive letdown. David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry were out; Ugo Ihemelu, Jeff Larentowicz and George John were in.
But while the matchup won't stir interest among casual observers or attract international curiosity, it has already served a broader function: strengthening two of the weakest links in a league that has made strides over 15 seasons and expects to expand to 20 outlets as early as 2013.
"There isn't a commissioner anywhere that doesn't sort of wring their hands when you have historic, legendary, impactful matchups, because that will drive TV ratings and helps break through," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. But with their success this year, Colorado and Dallas are "building fan bases and they're building relevance in their community."
Both needed something good to happen. Colorado and Dallas are founding members of MLS with largely empty trophy cases. The Rapids upset their way to the title game in 1997, only to lose to D.C. United. They hadn't been back since. That same year, Dallas won the U.S. Open Cup, a sideshow to league competition. Before this season, it had never advanced to the MLS Cup.
Dallas reinvented itself five years ago by dumping the "Burn" nickname for the traditional soccer moniker "FC" (Football Club). Both teams rarely fill their lovely new suburban stadiums. This year, the Rapids were 12th among 16 clubs in home attendance (13,329) while FC Dallas was 15th at 10,815 — less than one-third of what league attendance leader Seattle draws.
"The past has been somewhat barren with success and probably quality of play," Rapids Coach Gary Smith said of the organization. "I hope, all in all, the community and the fans are going to come out and push us forward as the seasons unfold in the future."
Colorado has always been a middling MLS team, not bad enough to be ridiculed and not good enough to be feared. This year, the club finished fifth in the Western Conference, was placed in the weaker Eastern playoff bracket, upset Columbus on penalty kicks and then defeated the lowest seed, San Jose, last week in frigid conditions before almost 18,000 home supporters.
"It's been tough over the years," said veteran midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, recalling unofficial fan counts of 1,500 to 2,000 at the start of matches at Invesco Field, the club's mammoth home before Dick's Sporting Goods Park opened.
"We were not getting the kind of support from the community. Every city wants to be associated with a winner, and so for us, this is a good opportunity. In years' past, when we came into the playoffs, it was like, 'How did we get here?' The pieces didn't add up. This year, from the first game forward, it was a feeling that we had a solid team, we had a direction, we had a belief."
Dallas has had an equally bland existence. But while Colorado surged in the playoffs, the Texas club has been exceptional most of the season. Its 19-game unbeaten streak set a league record; goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, on the brink of retirement after being stuck in a contract dispute with Kansas City last winter, has been a postseason star in his 14th year, and Colombian midfielder David Ferreira was named MLS's most valuable player.
The architect is Coach Schellas Hyndman, who 2½ years ago left Southern Methodist University after 23 NCAA tournament appearances in 24 years. One of his former players was Clark Hunt, whose late father, Lamar, owned the Kansas Chiefs and helped launch MLS. Clark operates FC Dallas.
Hyndman recalls Clark saying: "We'd like you to think about taking this job.. We need you. We'd like you to do something for Dallas and the club."
Hyndman continued. "That's a heavy load. Because it was Clark and his family meant so much to me, I took that challenge. And that's what it was: a challenge. What 60-year-old guy walks away from a great job and lifetime contract?"
In the playoffs, Dallas ousted defending champion Real Salt Lake with a road victory in the decisive match and then went back on the road to rout the league's regular season leader, Los Angeles, 3-0.
FC Dallas vs. Colorado Rapids
Today, 6:30 p.m.Toronto
TV: ESPN, Galavision