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David Beckham #23 of the Los Angeles Galaxy heads the ball in the second half during the Western Conference Finals match of the MLS playoffs against FC Dallas at The Home Depot Center on November 14, 2010 in Carson, California. FC Dallas defeated the Galaxy 3-0 to advance to the MLS Cup Final match against the Colorado Rapids. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images) (Victor Decolongon/2010 Getty Images)
David Beckham #23 of the Los Angeles Galaxy heads the ball in the second half during the Western Conference Finals match of the MLS playoffs against FC Dallas at The Home Depot Center on November 14, 2010 in Carson, California. FC Dallas defeated the Galaxy 3-0 to advance to the MLS Cup Final match against the Colorado Rapids. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images) (Victor Decolongon/2010 Getty Images)

Titans missing from MLS Cup clash Add to ...

In an ideal world, it would have been glamour versus panache. David Beckham against Thierry Henry. The Los Angeles Galaxy matching wits with the New York Red Bulls.

But this is sport, not the opera, and grand finales on the field of play tend to be unscripted occasions, subject to the whimsies of the fates and offering altogether unpredictable affairs.

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As a result, Major League Soccer is instead left with the prospect of unveiling a first-time champion Sunday in the first MLS Cup final to be held outside the United States, with the Colorado Rapids taking on FC Dallas at Toronto's BMO Field.

Though commissioner Don Garber is excited by the opportunity to crown the league's ninth different champion in its 15th season of play, he also knows that ratings help drive a sport forward, especially one such as soccer, which outside World Cups and European championships, struggles to grab national attention.

"It happened with the NHL this past year where they had record ratings for their Stanley Cup," Garber said in the buildup to the final. "Because they had two of their more historic teams that hadn't been there for a while in their final. The NBA certainly had it with the Celtics and Lakers.

"However, we now have a lot of people buying season tickets in Denver, Dallas, Columbus and Salt Lake. And they're building fan bases and they're building relevance in their community."

While recent entries to MLS such as Toronto FC, the Seattle Sounders and the Philadelphia Union have arrived with great fanfare and instant success - at the box office at least - not every club has been so lucky, and Dallas and Colorado have been among those struggling for relevance in crowded sports markets.

But a trip to a Cup final is always a good tonic for change.

"We're a more relevant club today than we were a year ago," Colorado president Jeff Plush said Thursday. "I think we saw that as the season went on and saw that in the conference final [last Saturday]where we did 17,000 tickets in less than five days. It's like anything - winning is a great elixir for future success."

Colorado, which averaged 13,328 fans a game this season, nearly 4,500 short of capacity, also benefits from sharing an owner - billionaire real estate developer Stan Kroenke - with English Premier League giant Arsenal.

"I think if you went to their website today you'd see the story of our trip to the Cup on their home page," Plush said, "and [with them]being one of the top five or seven clubs in the world, that has a huge impact for us."

It's a similar story for FC Dallas, which barely filled half of its 20,500-seat stadium in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, despite playing the kind of attacking soccer that TFC consultant Juergen Klinsmann yearns to bring to BMO Field next season. Still, from Dallas's viewpoint, success on the field can hopefully translate to the stands.

"I think the brand of FC Dallas will be changed forever and it's headed in a place that makes me so incredibly proud," former player-turned-broadcaster Bobby Rhine said. "From a league perspective, it would be very nice to have New York-L.A., but I think FC Dallas and the style of play and the way they go about it is such a great endorsement for the league in terms of trying to play attacking soccer."

And though the game may be lacking some marquee names from a neutral's point of view, it's unimportant as far as the players are concerned.

"Maybe when you play a normal game in the league it's better when you play against players like Beckham, [Landon]Donovan, Henry," said midfielder Javier Morales, who helped Real Salt Lake upset Beckham's Galaxy to claim last year's title, "but when you play in a final, it doesn't matter who is on the other team, only that you want to win."

Follow on Twitter: @paulattfield

 

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