The Galaxy was toast, a stunning 3--0 home loser to FC Dallas in Sunday's MLS Western Conference final, and as Landon Donovan and David Beckham trudged off the Home Depot Center field, the question hung like a foul smell in the air: Will a team with star power ever win the MLS championship? This is the fourth year of the league's so-called Beckham Rule, which allows teams to sign big-name designated players (up to three per team this season) whose paychecks aren't limited by the tight $2.55 million salary cap. And for the fourth season in a row the Cup winner will be a chemistry-rich outfit without a DP.
This Sunday's final between Dallas and the Rapids in Toronto is the most unexpected title game in the league's 15-year history, a matchup between the last original MLS team to reach the final (Dallas) and a perennial mediocrity (Colorado) that has never won a trophy. If there was ever a season in which a star-driven team figured to win the championship, it was this one. The top playoff seeds after the 30-game regular season were the Galaxy (with Donovan and Beckham) and the Red Bulls (with Thierry Henry, Rafael Màrquez and Juan Pablo Angel). The two flagship teams had MLS's five highest-paid players, its highest payrolls—$15.7 million for New York, $11.0 million for L.A.—and the ingredients for a final that could have drawn record television ratings for the league.
But both heavyweights flopped on their home fields. New York fell to the upstart Earthquakes in the first round, with Màrquez losing the ball regularly in the midfield and the injured Henry coming on for only the final few minutes—just long enough to head a gift-wrapped series equalizer over the crossbar. Los Angeles was thoroughly outclassed by Dallas as Beckham (slowed by a groin injury) made little impact and Donovan (fatigued after playing for 30 of the past 33 months) extended his goal drought to eight matches. Nor did the other teams that loosened their purse strings reap dividends: The Fire (two DPs, third-highest payroll: $5.6 million) and Toronto FC (two DPs, fourth-highest payroll: $5.2 million) were among the eight teams that failed to make the playoffs.
Then again, give credit to the clubs that have put themselves into position to win titles by building cohesive units without superstars. Real Salt Lake won MLS Cup 2009 with no DPs and the motto, The team is the star. Colorado has reached this year's final with a balanced roster that has experience and bite in the central midfield (Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz) and the league's best forward tandem (Conor Casey and Omar Cummings). Likewise, Dallas unearthed a gem in 31-year-old Colombian midfielder David Ferreira, acquiring him on loan last year from the Brazilian club Atlético Paranaense. On Sunday he dominated L.A., scoring the first goal and setting up the third.
With a $300,000 salary Ferreira isn't making DP money, but this week he could win the league MVP award and hoist the MLS Cup trophy. He's only the latest example of what makes MLS the ultimate Moneyball league.
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For more on the MLS Cup, read Grant Wahl's Planet F√∫tbol column at SI.com/soccer
THROW-INS Trophy Talk
The key to the 15th MLS Cup final will be in the midfield, where Dallas has a manpower advantage (five to four). And David Ferreira's movement, vision and skill as a scorer will put loads of pressure on Rapids center mids Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz. "[Ferreira] has shown that you can be 5' 5" and 145 pounds and still be a heck of a player," says Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman. Dallas's back line is vulnerable, but goalkeeper Kevin Hartman has been tough in the postseason and should make enough big stops to bring the Anschutz Trophy to the Big D. Prediction: Dallas 3, Colorado 1
MICHAEL JANOSZ/ISIPHOTOS.COM (DONOVAN)
DOWN AND OUT The league's top playmaker during the regular season, Donovan had no playoff goals or assists as L.A. exited in the semifinals.
JAMIE SABAU/GETTY IMAGES (MASTROENI)