COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Conor Casey and Omar Cummings helped lead the Rapids into the postseason, but an unlikely hero led them into the MLS Cup.
Defender Kosuke Kimura scored a rare goal and the Rapids earned an even rarer shot at their first MLS crown, topping the San Jose Earthquakes, 1-0, in a chilly Eastern Conference Championship at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday night.
The gritty but sure-footed win means the Rapids will make their first MLS Cup appearance since 1997 when they take the field next Sunday at BMO Field in Toronto. They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s Western Conference final between FC Dallas and the host LA Galaxy at The Home Depot Center.
The San Jose Earthquakes, meanwhile, saw their surprising postseason run come to an end, falling two steps short of winning the first MLS title since their 2008 rebirth and third in franchise history.
Steady and patient play from the Rapids made sure of that, and they got the game-winner late in the first half after a number of chances skipped wide.
Kimura stepped up from his spot on the back line in the 43rd minute and curled an in-swinging left-footed cross intended for Cummings in the box. But the ball skipped over the Jamaican international’s foot and then past lunging Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch into the corner of the goal.
The goal was the first in the postseason and just the third of a four-year career for Kimura, who wasn’t even on the team when the Rapids last reached a conference championship game in 2006.
That tally rallied a shivering crowd, who endured temperatures hovering around freezing and a stiff breeze on the Colorado Front Range at kickoff. The snow flurries expected during the match, however, never materialized.
Perhaps some wet weather would have helped the Quakes and slowed an aggressive Rapids side, who controlled the tempo throughout the first half and kept San Jose locked down for much of the match. Budweiser Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski was quiet much of the night on the right flank for the Quakes, and Brazilian Designated Player Geovanni was one of the few offensive sparks for the upset-minded visitors.
Wondolowski’s best chance came in the 63rd minute when he skipped a header just wide of the post after redirecting a cross from conference semifinal series hero Bobby Convey.
Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens needed to make just one real save to pick up his fourth career shutout and first trip to the MLS Cup after missing two previous chances with the Chicago Fire.
The wait has been even longer for veteran Rapids midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, who will play in his first MLS Cup after 26 combined career postseason matches with the Rapids and the Miami Fusion dating back to 1998.
Mastroeni nearly earned a rare goal of his own in the 63rd minute, but his one-timed blast from the top of the box was steered wide by Busch, who made five saves on the night. Cummings also nearly padded the Rapids’ lead when he skipped a breakaway shot off the crossbar after skirting around Busch in the 65th minute.
Geovanni also swept a header from Rapids defender Drew Moor off the goal line in the 69th minute as the Rapids surged for the clincher.
Busch, meanwhile, earned the dubious distinction of losing in the conference final for the fourth consecutive year, after starting in the last two for the Chicago Fire and playing behind Pickens in Chicago in 2007.
The Rapids’ Brian Mullan – a trade deadline acquisition that was emblematic of Colorado’s eagerness to end more than a decade of futility - will appear in the fourth MLS cup of his career after previously winning a combined three titles with the Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo. He also won a title in 2002 with the LA Galaxy, but did not appear in the final.
Neither team seriously threatened until the 22nd minute, when Mullan feathered a through ball into the box to an onrushing Cummings, who got a quick touch on the ball before Busch snuffed out the chance.
San Jose immediately charged back, nearly capitalizing on a Rapids turnover in the 26th minute. Geovanni threaded a through pass from near midfield to forward Scott Sealy, who saw his breakaway chance quashed by Kimura.
Casey had his best early chance in the 30th minute, glancing a header wide of the post after redirecting a cross from Kimura. Cummings also blazed a left-footed shot over the bar in the 38th minute.
COL -- Kosuke Kimura 1 (unassisted) 42
San Jose Earthquakes -- Jon Busch, Chris Leitch (Arturo Alvarez 57), Jason Hernandez, Brandon McDonald, Tim Ward, Chris Wondolowski, Sam Cronin (Eduardo 79), Scott Sealy, Bobby Convey, Geovanni (Khari Stephenson 72), Ryan Johnson.
Substitutes Not Used: Bobby Burling, Ike Opara, Brad Ring, Brian Edwards.
Colorado Rapids -- Matt Pickens, Kosuke Kimura, Marvell Wynne, Drew Moor, Anthony Wallace (Julien Baudet 78), Wells Thompson, Jeff Larentowicz, Pablo Mastroeni, Brian Mullan, Conor Casey (Quincy Amarikwa 89), Omar Cummings.
Substitutes Not Used: Macoumba Kandji, Ross LaBauex, Claudio Lopez, Scott Palguta, Ian Joyce.
Referee: Jorge Gonzalez
Referee's Assistants: Chris Strickland; Greg Barkey; 4th Official: Mark Geiger