The Los Angeles Galaxy will be looking to wrap up a terrific 2011 with the MLS Cup on Sunday night at the Home Depot Center. After winning the Supporters Shield for the second year in a row and advancing to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, claiming the last domestic trophy of the year would cap an extraordinary run.
The big questions surrounding the Galaxy have more to do with David Beckham’s next career move. The MLS Cup final could be his finale in the USA. He has won major championships at each of his previous clubs and is looking to finish the last year of his MLS contract in style. That style has been crimped this week though as he missed two days of practice with what was called a “cold”.
Beckham’s fitness will not be the Galaxy’s only concern. Irish international Robbie Keane returned on Wednesday from two Euro 2012 games for his country. The long voyage and absence from training is not ideal. Landon Donovan skipped the USA’s two friendly games, but has looked slow during the second half of the season. Perhaps the break has allowed him to re-charge his battery. The Galaxy also lost one starter when Chad Barrett dislocated his ankle in training. Adam Cristman will most likely step in as coach Bruce Arena makes a like for like swap.
But, the Galaxy are well known and highly publicized due to their three Designated Players. Their opponents on Sunday have flown well under the radar. The Houston Dynamo recently bid Robertson Stadium good-bye as they prepare for a move into their own downtown stadium. They have a celebrity investor in Oscar De La Hoya who is far better known than any of their players. However, like the Galaxy, the Dynamo will be missing one starter on Sunday: left wing Brad Davis. Davis was among the MVP candidates in the league this year after racking up 4 goals and 16 assists. His service from set pieces will be sorely missed.
Scottish-born former US international Dominic Kinnear manages the Dynamo. His teams have had a habit of starting slow, very slow, and picking up steam later in the year. This year was no different as they finished a woeful first half of the season as an afterthought in the playoff chase only to surge up the table and finish just behind Kansas City in the Eastern Conference.
The Dynamo went through some tactical adjustments over the course of the season. The most significant move saw Geoff Cameron drop from midfield into the center of defense next to Bobby Boswell. That solidified the back line. Goalkeeper Tally Hall went on to have a breakout season that could and should see him be a part of the USA’s January camp with Cameron. Canadian international Andre Hainault and speedy Corey Ashe make up the rest of the usual back four. Ashe could move to midfield as cover for the injured Davis on Sunday.
Kinnear has a lot of flexibility with the rest of the positions on the field. Certainly Brian Ching will start at center forward. He is the leader of this team, the veteran presence that any team needs. Who starts with him will give an indication of how Kinnear sees the game going. Calen Carr offers speed. Will Bruin is a penalty area poacher. Carlo Costly can be unpredictable. Any or all of them could see action, especially if Carr is preferred in a wide midfield position.
Brazilian midfielder Luiz Camargo settled into the Houston team more and more as the season went along and should retain his place with Adam Moffatt in the engine room. They will be charged with preventing David Beckham from spraying passes across the large playing surface at the Home Depot Center.
While Beckham, Keane, and Donovan have rightly earned a lot of ink, the Galaxy’s success has been rooted in its all-American defense. That starts with goalkeeper Josh Saunders who has retained the number one spot even after Donovan Ricketts’ return from a broken arm. The back four of Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, AJ Delagarza, and Todd Dunivant had the best defensive record in the league. With veterans Gregg Berhalter and Frankie Hejduk as cover, there is plenty of experience on the bench.
Another key player who doesn’t garner much media attention is Mike Magee. He’s not really a forward and not really a midfielder. Coach Bruce Arena plays him on the left side of the formation and he has come up with a key goal in each playoff game this year. Every time he scores, it seems like he’s on the end of a Beckham cross-field ball. Magee has no assists this year, but eight total goals and even filled in as goalkeeper in one game earlier in the season when a red card to Josh Saunders left the Galaxy short. As of now, he might just be the MVP of the playoffs.
Because both teams are built on solid defense, this should be a low-scoring final. One set piece could make the difference between winning and losing. If that’s what decides the game, the Galaxy will have the edge due to Brad Davis’ absence. The Galaxy will also be playing at home. For the Dynamo to win, they will have to cut off the supply line from Beckham to Keane, Donovan, and Magee. And, they will have to prove that they can win without their best player.