CARSON, Calif. -- Déjà vu all over again. It sounded funny when Yogi Berra said it -- not so much for the Houston Dynamo after its second successive MLS Cup loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Same clubs, same venue, same outcome. Which only makes the defeat even more of a stab-wound to the soul for Houston: it had a second chance and could not take it. Grief repeated is grief doubled.
While the Galaxy conducted their press conferences in a packed studio and assorted beautiful people floated through the restricted-access corridors and rooms in the bowels of the Home Depot Center, turning this corner of humdrum Carson into a subset of the L.A. scene, the Dynamo locker room emptied as fast as Oscar Boniek Garcia dribbles.
No champagne, just a stack of unused energy drinks, and a few forlorn, tattered orange paper ribbons on the floor, remainders of the party that never was, the party that might have been.
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Like the 2011 final, L.A. was the better team with the more talented players and had the bulk of the chances, outsmarting and outpacing Houston's defense. Unlike last year, the Dynamo repeatedly menaced their opponents' breachable back line and held the lead at halftime. For two-thirds of this contest, Houston was entitled to believe it was making history. Turns out, it was only repeating it.
As coach Dominic Kinnear said after the 3-1 loss, it's the hope that hurts most. His team was better this year, more confident and healthier and more determined, and yet all the positives ultimately made no difference.
"I don't know whether I want to cry or throw up, one of the two," Kinnear said. "We played well today, we gave ourselves a chance to win the game, that's the tough part.
"Their first goal changed the momentum. This game could have gone either way. We still went and got some good looks at goal, some good situations. ... They made the most of their pressure and got some breaks."
Calen Carr scored shortly before half-time. What a tale if he would prove the hero: the Californian whose career appeared in question last year after he suffered a troubling concussion with the Chicago Fire that all but ruined his 2011. He wears protective headgear on the pitch. Carr had a terrific chance for 2-0, but Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders saved the forward's 56th-minute header.
Ten minutes later, Carr had injured his left knee making an over-exuberant challenge and was substituted. Quickly, Houston was 2-1 down. After Omar Gonzalez equalized with a header, Landon Donovan scored from the penalty spot when handball was called on Ricardo Clark. Cruel that it was Clark, who missed the Dynamo's triumphs in 2006 through injury and 2007 through suspension.
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It was not just a momentum shift but a momentum transformation. But it did not come out of nowhere. It felt like the Galaxy were waiting for Houston to open the door a fraction, then kick it down.
For all the talk of parity in MLS, no one could claim that when one roster costs about $12.7 million and the other roughly $3.3 million, the difference will not be visible when it matters most. Especially in the performances of Robbie Keane and David Beckham, the Galaxy got what they paid for. Top players seize big moments.
Talk turned to this year's rule change that sees the highest-ranked of the remaining seeds host the final. Unfair?
"It didn't bug us that much," Kinnear said. "When you play you don't hear the crowd unless there are pauses in the game. If this game was in Houston I'd be like, it's a great idea!."
Given Houston's unbeaten record at BBVA Compass Stadium and ordinary road results, perhaps home advantage would have helped. On the last weekend of the regular season, L.A. beat Seattle while Houston lost to Colorado having picked a shadow side to rest legs ahead of the playoff against Chicago. What might have proved a meaningless match turned out to matter.
"It puts an emphasis on how important every single game is throughout the year," Dynamo captain Brad Davis said. "We missed out on hosting this game by a single point."
One of several regrets, no doubt. But it is a tribute to Houston's management and players that the club reached this final and pushed its opponents so close for so long. It was this unstarry franchise's fourth MLS Cup appearance in seven years. It has made the playoffs six times and won them twice. Success is so routine, it is easy to forget the honors roll is not just an outstanding achievement for Houston -- it is a remarkable overachievement.
Davis said he was "definitely bummed right now," but "extremely proud of what this group of guys, this club continues to do. You have to be proud of what we've accomplished this year again."
In time -- a few days perhaps, or a few months -- Houston will realize that the depth of its pain is a measurement of its vast accomplishments.