The Los Angeles Galaxy faces Real Salt Lake in the 2009 MLS Cup Final tonight (8:30pm, ESPN/Galavision) in a match-up of teams that each seemed like MLS Cup long-shots at certain points in the season.
The Galaxy looked far from a title team through the season's first two months, but Bruce Arena's club came together during the summer and kicked into a new gear when David Beckham finally arrived during the summer.
Real Salt Lake came into the year with higher expectations after coming so close to an MLS Cup Final appearance last year, but inconsistent form through most of the season turned RSL into an afterthought in a loaded Western Conference. Jason Kreis' team eventually found its stride late in the year and reached the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, but did so playing as we as it had all year.
The Galaxy will be heavily favored, but with Real Salt Lake riding a wave of confidence and good form, tonight's MLS Cup Final is anyone's to win.
Here is a closer at tonight's final:
TOP MATCH-UPS TO WATCH
Kyle Beckerman vs. David Beckham. David Beckham is nursing an injured right ankle, and is expected to take a pain-killing injection to play tonight. With his movement limited, it will be up to Beckerman to not only contain the English star, but also to press forward into attack on occasions in order to force Beckham to defend and move. If RSL is going to pull the upset, Beckerman needs to win this battle.
Robbie Findley vs. Omar Gonzalez. The Galaxy's lack of pace in defense is well-chronicled and Findley's blazing speed will should cause problems for the centerback tandem of Gonzalez and Gregg Berhalter. The key for LA is cutting off the service to Findley from midfield, but if and when RSL slips in some dangerous passes, Gonzalez will likely be called on to try and stay with Findley.
Javier Morales vs. Dema Kovalenko. These former midfield teammates do battle in what should be a physical encounter. Kovalenko does a good job of covering a lot of ground in midfield, but he does have a habit of sliding out of position to help teammates defensively. He won't have that luxury tonight because he needs to focus on Morales and not letting the Argentine playmaker get too many clear looks.
Landon Donovan vs. Robbie Russell. Donovan will be vying for his fourth MLS Cup title and he will look to burn Russell to do so. Russell has taken over as the starter at right back for Tony Beltran and he has the quickness to try and deal with Donovan, but he's also prone to mistakes and could struggle to keep tabs on Donovan as the Galaxy star floats all over midfield looking for cracks in the RSL defense.
Jamison Olave vs. Edson Buddle. Buddle's combination of size and deceptive quickness can trouble defenders, but Olave boasts great physical qualities as well and will be called on to limit Buddle's space.
Will Johnson vs. Sean Franklin. There are plenty of big names in this match, but this battle could be just as important as any of the rest. Johnson is an underrated midfielder who isn't a traditional left winger, but more of a floater who's energy and work rate provides great support for players like Javier Morales and Andy Williams. It will be up to Franklin to try and match Johnson's effort, while also taking advantage of chances to get forward. If Franklin can force Johnson to defend, that will diminish his contributions to an RSL attack that is tough to stop when it is clicking.
Todd Dunivant and Yura Movsisyan. Why might a left back play such a key role tonight? With RSL right back Robbie Russell dealing with Donovan, and with projected RSL right winger Andy Williams not a true winger and not a great defender, Dunivant could have a field day getting forward and finding space to deliver some quality service to the Galaxy forwards.
As for Movsisyan, his combination of size and speed should help him exploit any mistakes or gaps the Galaxy leaves as its defense tries to cope with Findley and Morales.
Los Angeles is the heavy favorite, but anyone who watched Real Salt Lake's playoff run knows the match-up is much closer than that.
RSL's defense has stepped it up in the playoffs and is capable of neutralizing the Galaxy's attack, especially if Beckham can't play or is seriously limited.
One of the to the match will be how the Galaxy defense copes with RSL's attack. The battle begins in midfield, where Kovalenko and Beckham will need to control the possession game against the combination of Morales and Beckerman. If RSL's midfield has limited time on the ball to pick out Findley and Movsisyan then the Galaxy back-line will have a much better chance to contain RSL.
Ultimately, I see the Galaxy prevailing on the strength of Donovan's ability to step up in championship matches, and Bruce Arena's edge in experience over Jason Kreis. Donovan hasn't really dominated a match yet in these playoffs, but he has delivered in the MLS Cup Final before and he will rise to the occasion tonight. If Beckham can complement Donovan with his own productive performance, then Los Angeles will create enough chances to crack RSL's tough back-line. The Galaxy prevails, 2-1.
What do you think of tonight's match? Who do you see playing the biggest role in the match? Think a surprising star will emerge? Who do you see winning?
Share your thoughts below.