-- Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber has been in a cheery mood leading up to Sunday's championship game at Gillette Stadium, and who could blame him? The matchup -- the Los Angeles Galaxy against the New England Revolution -- and setting are so ideal, it's as if they were carefully scripted by the league's marketing department.
Garber still has plenty of long-term concerns to address in the coming months, such as the perpetual search for new investors in the financially uncertain league and the desperate need for new stadiums. But for one day at least, he and the rest of MLS's architects can turn their attention to a high-profile matchup before a potentially record crowd on a sparkling autumn day.
It's the top seed (Galaxy) against the second seed (Revolution). It's the top two scorers in the league -- Los Angeles's Carlos Ruiz and New England's Taylor Twellman. It's a three-time runner-up (Los Angeles) against a once woeful franchise (New England).
And it will all unfold at the Revolution's home, only the second time in MLS's seven years that the pre-arranged host has advanced to the final.
Ticket sales reached 55,000 today and, with good weather predicted and many out-of-town fans expected to purchase tickets at the gate, an MLS Cup attendance record seems likely. The current mark is 57,431 at RFK Stadium in 1997, when D.C. United defeated the Colorado Rapids for its second consecutive championship.
"You can't expect this every year, but it's an exciting, nice, fulfilling and happy moment for us," Garber said. "I'm sure [everyone involved] will be equally proud that the sport can deliver the kinds of numbers we'd like to have."
MLS delivered good numbers during the regular season with average attendance rising to 15,822 from 14,961. But the playoff crowds up to this point (with the exception of Galaxy home games at the Rose Bowl) had been a disappointment because of several midweek dates, bad weather and last-minute scheduling.
The thought of the Revolution playing in the final didn't seem realistic a few months ago. Coach Fernando Clavijo was fired in late May and replaced with his top assistant, former Liverpool standout Steve Nicol. It wasn't until late in the regular season that the Revolution found a rhythm and captured the title in the abysmal Eastern Conference with a 12-14-2 record.
But with Twellman terrorizing opposing defenses and New England's backfield, anchored by former William & Mary all-American goalkeeper Adin Brown, yielding few opportunities, the Revolution knocked out preseason favorite Chicago and troublesome Columbus in the playoffs.
New England's success is reminiscent of D.C. United's build-up to the inaugural 1996 title: a slow start followed by personnel changes and a gradual maturation before peaking in the playoffs.
"It's deja vu for me, big time," said Revolution midfielder Brian Kamler, who played for United in the early years of MLS. "We were 1-6 at one point [in '96], but we were a really tight group and things just kept getting better as the year went on.
"It's been the same thing here. And here I am with this team, playing the Galaxy again," Kamler said, referring to United's 3-2 overtime victory over Los Angeles in the '96 final at the old Foxboro Stadium.
While New England needed several months to get its act together, Los Angeles has been consistently good, thanks in large part to Ruiz, who became the first player in MLS history to score more than 50 percent of his team's goals (24 of 44) in the regular season; he has had seven more in the playoffs.
Twellman, who starred at the University of Maryland before playing in Germany and then signing with MLS before this season, has been almost equally spectacular with 23 goals, plus two in the postseason. But a sprained knee suffered less than two weeks ago could slow him down on Sunday.
"You've got two of the hottest teams in the league and two teams that deserve to be here," Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid said. "It's going to be a tremendous atmosphere, a tremendous contest and it's really going to showcase our sport."