TORONTO - This year's MLS Cup final was dull. There's no way around it. But for every 4-3 roller-coaster, there's a critic who laments poor defending. And for every romantic who berates a scoreless draw, there's a connoisseur of catenaccio who salutes it.
On Saturday night, the defense's case won its trial. Though the result of that was the first scoreless draw in Major League Soccer's 21 title games to date, it's only fair to salute the terrific performances by Seattle's two centerbacks, Roman Torres and Chad Marshall.
In fact, it's not only fair. It's necessary. Especially if you're a Philadelphia Union fan.
There were many reasons why the Union fell apart down the stretch this year. Many fans pointed to the lack of a quality goal-scorer, and for good reason. I chose to shine a brighter spot on the team's lack of quality centerbacks, especially when Josh Yaro missed four of the team's last five games.
When Yaro played 45 minutes or more in a game, the Union's record was 5 wins, 5 draws and 6 losses. When he didn't, the Union's record was 6-6-10 - and three of those wins before Yaro made his MLS debut.
If that doesn't convince you, think about this: The Union were 8-5-11 with Ken Tribbett on the field and 4-4-4 with him off it. From July on, the Union were 3-3-8 when he played and 2-1-2 when he didn't.
I'm sure no one needs reminding of how many bad goals the Union conceded directly because of mistakes Tribbett made, especially late in the season. And most of you also don't need reminding that the team had nowhere else to turn, save for 18-year-old Auston Trusty. It would have been unfair to ask him to save the season just over a month after turning pro.
With time and seasoning, Yaro and Trusty will grow into good players - and Trusty could end up being much more than that. But right now, they aren't there yet. And right now, that's what the Union have to worry about.
I didn't set out to write this column when I arrived at BMO Field. I wanted to focus on Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Jordan Morris, and write about whichever U.S. national team star ended the night a winner.
The first sign that I should go in a different direction came within 15 minutes of kickoff, when Sebastian Giovinco took the ball about 20 yards from goal and tried to back down Roman Torres.
That's 5-foot-4 and 137 pounds against 6-foot-2 and 183 pounds.
Giovinco is the best attacking talent in MLS, and second place isn't close. If the league's top honor was Most Outstanding Player instead of Most Valuable Player, Giovinco would have won this year's prize in a landslide.
But Torres won Saturday's contest decisively. In fact, he won almost every battle between the two players on the night.
Marshall, meanwhile, squared up to Altidore. That was a fairer fight: Marshall is 6-4 and 190, and Altidore is 6-1 and (officially) 174. Call that one a draw, because while Altidore didn't score, he got some decent chances. The best of them came in second-half stoppage time, when he broke free for a diving header off a corner kick scramble that was just barely saved by Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
When the final whistle blew, Torres was arguably the game's biggest star. Yes, Frei made the aforementioned save, and a stop for the ages on Altidore in the second extra time period. Torres was a dominant presence all over the field, and capped off his performance by scoring the title-winning penalty kick in the shootout.
Torres might not have been a household name at kickoff, but he's not some bit player. He's the captain of Panama's national team. The Sounders worked long and hard to sign him from Colombian powerhouse Millonarios, eventually landing him in August of 2015.
That's exactly the kind of work that every team in MLS ought to be doing. If the league is to be a sought-after destination for the best players in CONCACAF, its teams have to target players of Torres' pedigree and caliber.
Or perhaps more accurately, they have to keep doing so. Look around MLS and you'll find plenty of good central defenders from CONCACAF stalwarts. There's Jamaica's Je-Vaughn Watson (New England) and Jermaine Taylor (Portland), Honduras' Victor Bernardez (San Jose) and Maynor Figueroa (Dallas), and Costa Rican beast Kendall Waston (Vancouver).
Now let's look at Marshall. He's a solid, dependable MLS veteran who isn't quite national team-caliber, but brings a proverbial lunchpail to work every day. There's more than one of him in the league, as well there should be.
Just ask Toronto, which has three of them: centerback Drew Moor and wingbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour. For all the attacking firepower the Reds have - and have had over their 10-year history - the biggest reason why they didn't make the playoffs until last season was a lack of quality defenders.
Ask the Portland Timbers how much they missed Nat Borchers after he ruptured an Achilles tendon in late July. He was a key cog in their charge to last year's title, and his absence was a big reason why the Timbers didn't make the playoffs.
Ask expansion team Atlanta United, which smartly moved to grab Michael Parkhurst from Columbus before he landed in the Re-Entry Draft pool.
Even better, ask Union manager Jim Curtin. He was a Marshall-esque talent in his playing days, and I mean that as a compliment.
Now for the most important part. Here are the salary figures of all the players I've listed above:
Roman Torres: $491,812.50
Je-Vaughn Watson: $115,670.67
Jermaine Taylor: $150,000.00
Victor Bernardez: $216,000.00
Maynor Figueroa: $138,333.33
Kendall Waston: $318,125.00
Chad Marshall: $318,125.00
Drew Moor: $250,000.00
Justin Morrow: $216,666.67
Steven Beitashour: $244,000.00
Nat Borchers: $244,000.00
Michael Parkhurst: $300,000.00
None of them are Designated Player - Torres' cap hit is paid down with Targeted Allocation Money - but all are crucial to their teams.
And they don't cost exorbitant amounts of money. In fact, teams can spend a little more now than they might otherwise, thanks to MLS' new injection of $400,000 in TAM funding for each club heading into 2017.
These kinds of players aren't going to be the stars who go on billboards and national TV ads. But they go a long way toward helping the billboard players do the things that make them stars.
I'm not saying the Union should give a three-year deal to a player in his 30s. I'm not saying the Union should sign multiple older players, because in addition to Trusty and Yaro, there are good players in the academy like Rayshaun McGann and Mark McKenzie.
I'm simply saying that signing one good veteran defender this offseason would make the team significantly better on and off the field.
It would give Maurice Edu, Derrick Jones and Alejandro Bedoya more freedom to contribute to the attack; and it would give Yaro, Trusty and the academy kids a mentor to teach them about life as a pro.
There are a few names to watch in this winter's free agent class, which was confirmed by MLS on Monday.
(Click here for the full list.)
Jason Hernandez, age 33, was quietly reliable for New York City FC. David Horst was injury-prone for a while, but the 31-year-old Pottsville area native played 31, 32 and 26 games in the last three seasons for Houston. Clarence Goodson will be 35 next May, but the former U.S. national team regular would bring infinite street smarts if the price is right.
There's also left back Corey Ashe, who surely has some gas still in the tank at age 30. He would be an upgrade over Fabinho, even after the Brazilian's strong 2016 campaign, and Ashe is a year younger. It also wouldn't be the worst thing if the team had two good left backs on the roster after having none for a while.
Later this week, we'll learn which players will be in the Re-Entry and Waiver Drafts. You'll know some of the players, and you might not know others. Take the time to study them. Between that group and the free agent class, there might be a player who takes the Union a big step closer toward finally winning a trophy.