For fans of America's domestic league, tomorrow marks the crescendo of a long and tumultuous season. As I'm sure you already know, the 2008 MLS Cup final will feature the incredibly unlikely matchup of the New York Red Bulls against Supporters' Shield winners the Columbus Crew.
Unlike the last few years, when the same familiar, dominating teams made it to the final, this year's game has the potential to be a classic. The absolutely dreadful form of the Red Bulls could make this a fairy tale kind of a game. If they play smart and with grit and determination, the Red Bulls could pull off an upset that few could have expected even three weeks ago.
I haven't been this excited for an MLS Cup since 2000, when my favorite Kansas City Wizards made it to the final against the Chicago Fire. There will be similarities in these games. The Wizards took a small clutch of supporters with them to RFK Stadium. Despite their best in the league defense, they struggled with firepower, relying on a cherry-picking Scandanavian striker named Miklos Molnar to get their goals. The Chicago Fire that year were an all-around powerhouse and brought a large and loud group of supporters to the game. Similarly, I think we'll see the Red Bulls (whose defense had been shaky until the last couple of playoff matches), will be expected to lose. Columbus officials are promising 1,000 supporters at the Home Depot Center. But with many of the Red Bulls playing their best soccer of the season, I think this game will be closer than anyone guesses.
Who knows how it will turn out? This may be a game that eight years from now we're remembering as one of the most exciting and entertaining in the league's history. That 2000 MLS Cup was a nail-biter. The Fire outshot the Wizards and probably deserved the win. But an opportunistic goal from Molnar and a defense anchored by Tony Meola and Peter Vermes shut out the favorites. And let's think back to the standouts who played in that game and think where they are now. Some of the leaders of American soccer today had their place on the field and on the sidelines. Current U.S. coach Bob Bradley coached the Fire then, relying on Peter Nowak to lead the team on the field, supported by the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Dema Kovalenko, Ante Razov, Zach Thonrton and DaMarcus Beasley. For the Wizards, Mo Johnston and Preki were the veteran players who, along with Meola and Chris Henderson, pushed the team to victory.
Tomorrow's final, which starts at 3:30 p.m. on ABC, promises to be a thrill for either team's supporters. And regardless of who wins, they can both take heart that after yesterday's state-of-the-league address by Commissioner Don Garber, both squads will be playing international soccer next year in the CONCACAF Champions League.
And as for my Wizards who struggled mightily in the playoffs against the Crew but didn't survive the first round? They'll get a shot against Mexican powerhouse clubs in the fan favorite SuperLiga. So it's not all bad. Unless you support a team that missed the playoffs and both big club competitions. Like David Beckham's LA Galaxy.
So where will you go tomorrow to watch the MLS Cup final?
- Tom Meagher