If soccer is sometimes the redheaded stepchild of U.S. sports, imagine the plight of the Colorado Rapids, perhaps the most marginalized team in the history of Major League Soccer. During its first 14 seasons Colorado won zero trophies, went through three sets of team colors and seemed so far down the priority list of its owner, real estate billionaire Stan Kroenke, that many players had never met the man. The Rapids' handsome (but half-full) stadium, Dick's Sporting Goods Park, might as well have been called Rodney Dangerfield Arena.
So it was probably apt on Sunday that after Colorado won its first MLS Cup final, beating FC Dallas 2--1 at Toronto's BMO Field, the sponsor awarding forward Conor Casey his MVP trophy called him Casey Conor. I tell you: no respect. Yet Casey, a bull in a china shop who scored the team's first goal and helped create the other, had the perfect response for an ego-free team. "Whatever," he said in the winners' locker room. "I've never won anything ever, so it's a fantastic feeling," he added.
Casey's shrug was emblematic of a team that not only accepted indignities with grace and humor but also turned them into a unifying and motivational force. "We don't have the most fans in the league, but the fans we do have are incredibly supportive," said midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. "The truth is that everybody in that locker room who comes in every single day—those are the ones we do it for. We don't really do it for many other people. I don't think Colorado is a spot on the MLS map that a lot of people are thinking about."
And so the players thought about each other, whether it was during a decent regular season (they had the league's seventh-best record), a come-from-behind triumph in the conference semifinals over Columbus or another rally in Sunday's final after Dallas had taken a 1--0 lead on David Ferreira's immaculate first-half strike. Colorado's two goals weren't aesthetic wonders: Casey scored his second-half equalizer on a rebound while sprawled on his backside, while the game-winner came on a deflection in extra time. The shot was fired by substitute forward Macoumba Kandji, who sprained his left knee on the play and wasn't able to stay in the game, much less celebrate the goal.
As a result Colorado, having used all of its subs, spent the last 12 minutes holding on for dear life with 10 men. It was a heroic effort, not least by goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who made a series of saves in the final frantic stretch. The league might not trumpet the Rapids' message—Ignored team closes ranks—but the lesson is a valuable one at any level of sports: What you do when the masses aren't watching is just as important as anything you do in front of a big crowd.
Kroenke showed up for the trophy ceremony, but had he joined his players in the locker room, he would have witnessed a triumphant scene of solidarity. There was midfielder Brian Mullan, the late-season acquisition who'd won his fifth MLS Cup with his fourth team. There was Kandji, his 6'4" frame on crutches, celebrating with his teammates and calling his family in Nashville to relay the news.
Perhaps most important, there was Pablo Mastroeni, the hard-driving captain who finally raised a trophy in his ninth season with Colorado. Eight years after his breakthrough during the U.S.'s run to the World Cup quarterfinals, Mastroeni, now 34, has reinvented himself to stay competitive, taking up yoga and dropping red meat from his diet. He also drew lessons from his two World Cups and applied them with the Rapids.
"To be a successful team in this league, it's different from Europe, where they pride themselves on talent and individual players," Mastroeni said last week. "That team spirit—leaving the egos in the locker room when you go out to train—is something that the U.S. national team has always done well. And in tough times that spirit will get you past some great individual players and make them question themselves."
As he savored Sunday's victory, Mastroeni recalled the 17,000 fans who showed up in freezing weather for the Rapids' win in the conference final the week before. "Everyone wants to be associated with a winner," he said. "If we can consistently put out an exciting product, I think people will show up."
After all, you can only ignore quality for so long.