Photo by Michael Janosz/ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
CARSON, Calif. – Ever since the participants in Sunday's MLS Cup booked their tickets to the season's grand finale two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Galaxy has been widely pegged as one of the biggest favorites the final has ever seen.
The Western Conference champions, after all, claimed the Supporters' Shield with a 19-5-10 mark, finishing 18 points ahead of the Houston Dynamo (12-9-13), their opponent from the East. Houston will be without Most Valuable Player runner-up Brad Davis, who suffered a quadriceps strain in the conference title game. And the Galaxy will enjoy home-field advantage at the Home Depot Center in Carson, where they have not lost in 2011.
But Los Angeles remembers entering the 2009 final against an upstart Real Salt Lake team as a heavy favorite, only to fall in penalty kicks. This time around, it's safe to say the Galaxy isn't taking anything for granted.
"We've positioned ourselves now to win an MLS Cup, which is a heck of a challenge to get here," Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena said. "One thing we learned from 2009 is you may never have the chance again, so when you get there, that's your moment, and you've got to play well and produce."
For Landon Donovan, the 2009 loss was a particularly bitter pill to swallow after the Galaxy captain wrapped an MVP campaign by missing his shot in the penalty tiebreaker against Salt Lake. Although he has won three MLS Cups, none has come since 2005 — an especially frustrating statistic considering the Galaxy had the league's top record last year and second-best mark in 2009.
"There have been some good years, but we have had disappointing finishes to each of the past two seasons," Donovan said. "So it feels like an eternity [since I won a championship], but it would all go away with a win tomorrow."
There to play spoiler, of course, will be the Dynamo. Despite the favorite tag attached to the Galaxy, Donovan believes "one play is going to make the difference" in a tightly contested match. For all of Los Angeles' advantages, it is Houston that carries into the fixture a nine-game unbeaten streak dating back to Sept. 10 — a stretch that includes a 3-1 win over a reserve-heavy Galaxy side in both teams' regular-season finale last month.
"It gives us a lot of confidence going in," Dynamo captain Brian Ching explained. "We're just enjoying each other and enjoying our play on the field, and it shows in the results. So hopefully we continue that for one more game."
Both franchises in this one are 90 minutes away from claiming a third MLS Cup crown. And like Arena, Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has two championships to his name. In reference to his MLS Cup rings, however, Kinnear said, "I don't even know where they are." For the time being, the past is all but forgotten.
In the here and now, Kinnear has a massive whole in his lineup to fill with Davis unable to take his usual post on the left flank. Defender Corey Ashe figures to slide into midfield to take the place of the MLS assist leader, opening up a spot at left back for Jamaica international Jermaine Taylor.
"I'm not worried about him," Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall said of Taylor. "I think he's going to surprise people with how well he fits in."
The Dynamo's retooled left side will be strongly tested by Donovan and the overlapping runs of All-Star right back Sean Franklin. It certainly doesn't end there, though, as Los Angeles presents matchup problems all over the field. The Galaxy's latest Designated Player signing, striker Robbie Keane, is a handful up top, while winger Mike Magee has been on fire during the playoffs, notching three goals in as many games.
In the center of the pitch, David Beckham is coming off the finest season of his five-year MLS career. And the 36-year-old, whose contract with Los Angeles expires at season's end, wants to make sure he is remembered by the Galaxy faithful "as a championship winner," whether he returns next year or not.
"With the caliber of players they have, it's going to be hard to stop them completely," Dynamo defender Geoff Cameron said. "They're going to get their opportunities, just like we're going to get our opportunities. But it's minimizing their opportunities, and that's putting pressure on them, not letting them get a free look or hit the balls in behind us."
Houston, on the other hand, boasts lethal set-piece proficiency that carried the club throughout the season and into the playoffs. As such, Los Angeles' success will be largely dependent on how Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez and his Galaxy teammates cope with those dead-ball situations.
But from Beckham's perspective, the clubs can only put so much stake in analyzing the enemy before going overboard on preparation.
"It's about worrying about our own game more than anything else," Beckham said. "I think if you worry about the opposition's game too much, then it becomes a problem and puts you off your own play."
It's a sentiment readily shared by Arena, who is quick to point out the players and coaches "don't actually go into games being able to project what the game's going to look like."
"We talk about the strengths and weaknesses of our opponent and what we want to do," Arena said. "Then the whistle blows and all hell breaks loose."