By J Hutcherson (June 9, 2020) US Soccer Players – Back in 2010, the 5th-place team in the Western Conference took advantage of Major League Soccer’s pseudo single-table. With all of the wildcard playoff spots up for grabs regardless of conference, the West took all four of them. The East had no one to blame but themselves when one of those low seed Western Conference teams ended up winning the title. Well, they had MLS to blame for sticking with a screwy playoff system. It’s not exactly surprising that once it produced a 5th-seed champion, the league reconsidered. Colorado may have won the Cup in 2010, but were they any good?
Philadelphia joined MLS in 2010, taking the league to 16 teams divided into two conferences. Since 2007, MLS had awarded wildcards regardless of conference. The top two teams from East and West advanced, but the rest of the spots were up for grabs. That immediately created one noticeable issue. The playoff brackets were still by conference, so a West wildcard team could end up playing in the East and vice-versa. Then there was conference imbalance. In the first year of the new system, the East took three of the four wildcards. MLS adjusted by advancing the top three teams from each conference in 2008, with the East taking both wildcards. In 2009, it was back to two teams from each conference with the West grabbing three of the four wildcards. Colorado missed the 2009 postseason on a tiebreaker to 5th-placed Real Salt Lake. No team in MLS was more aware of what making the playoffs, even in odd circumstances, meant in MLS going into 2010. Colorado’s proof of concept under coach Gary Smith was getting back to the playoffs after a five-year run from 2002 to 2006.
Colorado picked up Pablo Mastroeni after the contraction of the Miami Fusion following the 2001 season. They got an exceptional player in an undervalued role in MLS. Building around a talent like Mastroeni who could shift his role in the center of midfield meant setting up a strong core. That included players like Drew Moor, Marvell Wynne, and Jeff Larentowicz, all who got what it takes to get results in MLS. This might have been the David Beckham era, but Major League Soccer still had room for work rate. Larentowicz was a first-team All-Star that season, but whatever Colorado might accomplish had to be about the group making their goals count. Omar Cummings would end up tied for the 4th-highest goal total at 14 with Conor Casey a goal behind. Jamie Smith led the Rapids with eight assists, half of what league leader Landon Donovan produced. Colorado ended up scoring as many goals as Western Conference regular season winners the LA Galaxy at 44. Only Real Salt Lake scored more than season.
Steady may not win the race
By the second full month of the season, Colorado was showing that they could contend in the West. They started May with losses at San Jose and home to the Galaxy, but turned that around with a win at DC and back-to-back at home over Seattle and Columbus. All five of those games finished 1-0. They would chase that three-game win streak with three draws, splitting the points at Chicago, Houston, and home with the Red Bulls. It was the draws that began to catch up with the Rapids. From June 9 at Chicago through July 31 home to Dallas, Colorado drew five and lost two. That meant five points from an available 21 and the risk of spending the rest of the season fighting for a playoff spot.
No four game streak needed
There’s an old cliche about MLS regular seasons. At some point, a contender will win four games in a row. The Galaxy started the 2010 season that way. Real Salt Lake stretched it to five in May. Seattle did it in July. That 16 points or more turn can change a season. The Sounders put together another five-game streak late to reset the Western Conference table. Colorado never won more than three in a row in 2010, only putting together back-to-back wins one more time. That was home to Houston on August 28 and Chivas USA on September 4 with both 3-0 results. That was a turning point for the Rapids, realizing that they needed to focus on margin of victory to avoid getting bogged down in draws or 1-0 games. Colorado would win three more times over their remaining eight games, each by at least two goals. They drew three times, including their regular season finale against Real Salt Lake on October 23.
Conference imbalance in 2010
Colorado’s not bad but not exactly good regular season had them in 5th-place in the West tied on points with 6th-place San Jose with 46. The issue wasn’t finishing any lower. Houston had a disastrous season 13 points back in 7th. Chivas USA did even worse with 28 points. Fortunately for the Rapids and Earthquakes, the East was a two-team conference. New York and Columbus advanced with 51 and 50 points. That would’ve been good for 3rd and 4th-place in the West, but the rest of the East wasn’t even close. Kansas City finished 3rd and missed the playoffs with 39 points. Had they been in the West, that would’ve meant 7th-place seven points back of the Rapids and Quakes. It also meant that San Jose and Colorado advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Colorado faced Columbus in the two-game aggregate goals Eastern Conference semifinals. The Rapids took game one 1-0 at home with Mastroeni scoring and the Crew without their starting goalkeeper due to a late season injury. Columbus had a 2-0 lead late in game two, but a Casey goal in the 84th minute sent the series into extra time and eventually penalties. The Rapids converted all five of their penalties to advance 5-4. It was an all-West affair in the Eastern Conference finals with San Jose knocking out the Red Bulls 3-2 on aggregate. Staying on brand, MLS used single-elimination in the conference finals. Colorado shutout the Quakes 1-0 at home. Kosuke Kimura scored the game’s only goal in the 42nd minute. On the Western Conference side of the bracket, Dallas had no issues with Beckham’s Galaxy knocking them out 3-0 in Carson. Onto an unlikely MLS Cup.
FC Dallas vs Colorado Rapids
Toronto’s BMO Field was the site for the 2010 MLS Cup, the third running featuring teams from the same conference. It was an end of an era for the conference switcharoo, with MLS severely limiting the possibility the following season. In the last Western Conference MLS Cup, it would take extra time to determine a winner. Dallas took an early lead in the 35th minute through David Ferreira. In the 57th, a goalmouth scramble produced an interesting equalizer with Conor Casey scoring while seated. The ridiculousness of that goal would leave its mark on the final. With the game in extra time, a 107th minute own-goal sent the trophy Colorado’s way. It was a championship in the oddest of circumstances, with the 7th-best team overall lifting the trophy after navigating the other conference’s bracket.
So how good was Colorado in 2010?
There’s a quick answer, and it comes with a shiny trophy. The thing about the Rapids that season is that they never seemed good enough. Over the regular season, they looked like a team capable of stringing together wins and pushing near the top of the Western Conference. In the playoffs, they may have been the best team in the Eastern bracket. In that fluky final, they ended up getting the breaks. This isn’t a lucky over good scenario. The Rapids were a good team in 2010. It just took interesting MLS rules to get them to the point to show it. Even then, it left a lot of questions about the league and their champions. The following season, MLS only allowed a play-in round team to potentially switch to the other conference’s bracket. Wouldn’t you know it, the defending champions finished 5th and took the final wildcard spot. Colorado once again knocked out Columbus, but exited in the Eastern Conference semifinals to Sporting Kansas City. Sporting would go on to lose to Houston in the Eastern Conference finals and the Dynamo would beat the Galaxy for the Cup. It’s worth noting that in the current version of MLS, Sporting and Houston play in the Western Conference.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Logo courtesy of the Colorado Rapids