Friday November 20th, 2009

SEATTLE -- As the reborn Los Angeles Galaxy prepare to take on Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup final on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Galavisión), I can't help but think back to a scene in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 13, 2008.

There were two players left in the visitors' locker room that day -- Landon Donovan and David Beckham -- after the Galaxy's 2-0 loss to Kansas City, an ugly defeat in which Donovan and Beckham, three days removed from national-team games, had played like zombies.

By then, the '08 Galaxy season was a lost cause. Not a single member of the L.A. media bothered to attend the game. As I sat interviewing Donovan at his locker, Beckham walked out of the shower and headed toward his locker right next to us.

"Hey," Beckham said. He looked ashen. Drained. Sort of ill, in fact.

Donovan, for his part, said nothing to Beckham. They long since had stopped talking on a regular basis as Beckham had withdrawn from the American star and Donovan had grown increasingly frustrated with what he saw as Beckham's lack of leadership and commitment to the team. In that tense moment, as the Galaxy limped toward a last-place finish in the Western Conference, it seemed as though the Beckham Experiment was over. Finished. A failure.

Now look. Beckham and Donovan are 90 minutes away from an MLS championship, 90 minutes away from capping a remarkable turnaround, 90 minutes away from showing once and for all that Beckham's American adventure really is about the soccer, not just a giant marketing opportunity.

L.A. will be the heavy favorite on Sunday, not least because Salt Lake had the worst record of any of the eight MLS playoff teams. But RSL has pulled off two major upsets, taking out Columbus and Chicago on the road, and I think coach Jason Kreis' outfit could keep the final close for a while. Here are three things on my mind heading into the game:

Beckham will almost certainly play despite carrying an injury to his right ankle that prevented him for practicing most of the week. (His spokesman, Simon Oliveira, said Beckham would take pain-killers to play if necessary.) Beckham has played in the central midfield this season, which allows him to have a bigger influence on the game, but Salt Lake defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman will no doubt make Beckham's life difficult.

The dreadlocked Beckerman has made a big leap this season, not just in his play on the field, but also in his leadership, taking over the RSL captaincy and showing that he deserved it. If Beckerman can frustrate Beckham and close down the space he needs to send his long diagonal passes, then Salt Lake has a chance.

For my money, two of the most underrated performances of the MLS playoffs have been turned in by RSL center backs Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers, who kept Chicago (with Brian McBride and Cuauhtémoc Blanco) from scoring in last week's conference final. L.A. is even more dangerous, though, with MLS MVP Donovan running onto Beckham's passes and threatening to score himself or lay off to forwards Edson Buddle and Mike Magee.

Donovan won three titles in his first five MLS seasons, earning the nickname "Big Game Lanny" and comparisons to Derek Jeter, but it has been four long years since Donovan's last championship. The "new" Donovan says he shows up for every big occasion now. Here's another chance for him to prove it.

Could it be RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando's uncanny ability to play taller than 5-foot-9 and stop penalties? Or perhaps the recent stellar play of L.A. center backs Gregg Berhalter and Omar Gonzalez? Will Beckham's anger with the officials distract him from the game? Will Kreis continue favoring attacking play while Bruce Arena focuses on tightening up defensively?

Whose speed will stand out most: Donovan's or RSL forward Robbie Findley's? Who will start up front for Salt Lake: the talented-but-erratic Yura Movsisyan or Argentine Fabián Espíndola? And who will respond best to the pressure of a championship game? Beckham and Donovan certainly have more big-game experience, and it wasn't as though RSL's Argentines (Espíndola and Javier Morales) responded well under the gun last week, skying their penalties over the crossbar.

The Pick: I think we'll see a good game, but L.A.'s defense is too stingy and its game-breaking talent advantage is too great. Los Angeles 2, Salt Lake 0.

Grant Wahl's New York Times Best Seller, The Beckham Experiment, is in bookstores everywhere. You can order it here. You can also find him on Twitter.

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