L.A heavily favored in MLS Cup final
CARSON, Calif. -- David Beckham's potential MLS curtain call could also become the Los Angeles Galaxy's shining moment.
MLS commissioner Don Garber insists a huge investment in the Beckham experiment has been aces for Major League Soccer, even if one primary target has notoriously eluded the global icon's five years in Los Angeles: Beckham hasn't hauled his team up the trophy podium in an MLS Cup final.
Only Beckham knows whether Sunday's contest against red-hot, sudden road warriors Houston at the Home Depot Center, in the 16th MLS Cup final, will mark his MLS adieu. Beckham's five-year deal is up and Paris Saint-Germain, could be his next big adventure.
Or Beckham, 36, could re-sign with Los Angeles. Galaxy manager Bruce Arena recently put Beckham's chances of returning at "50-50."
Arena was just named MLS Coach of the Year for so successfully fusing a team of such disparate experience and lineage. In Beckham, all-time U.S. leading scorer Landon Donovan and Irish international Robbie Keane, the Galaxy owns three top pedigrees and salaries. Piecing together a team of mostly young role players around them and capturing a Supporters Shield was truly a masterful melding of the MLS "1 percent" with a bunch of motivated "99 percenters."
This possibly being Beckham's final year, and with the Galaxy's bequeathing of the final back in May (this is the first time a team will contest an MLS championships at its home venue since New England in 2002), so many elements are neatly aligned for the AEG-owned side. On the other hand, Arena admitted the pressure was palpable, and that mere arrival into Sunday's final stripped away one layer of high anxiety, at least.
"It's good pressure," he said during a national conference call earlier in the week. "It's the kind of pressure you're accustomed to. As an organization, as a coach, it's where we wanted to be."
Even if the rock stars on offense (Beckham, Donovan and Keane mostly) grab most of the glory, Los Angeles' rock-solid, highly organized back line is equally responsible. The Galaxy's total of just 28 goals conceded led MLS, and they never lost a game at home in 2011.
As for Beckham, he may remain a global icon, but the man definitely still has game. Those 15 assists, second in MLS, were no accident. They came off his sterling set-piece delivery or from those ballistic missile-type passes launched from midfield. The Galaxy's clockwork counter attack, a masterwork of heady transition play and well-rehearsed runs into the final third, hinges on his peerless passing.
Juninho, Beckham's underrated central midfield partner, keeps maturing and adding ever more balance to his game. But it's Beckham's brain and his timely, shrewdly reserved drive from midfield that makes the team go.
Add it all up, stop and listen, and there they are: whispers that Arena's 2011 Galaxy might be one the best sides ever in MLS. Of course, that sort of talk will die a quick, inglorious death if Sunday's result gets away.
And it certainly could. Outside the injury to assist king Brad Davis, so much has gone right for Kinnear's men lately. Start with this: Houston hasn't lost in nine matches (7-0-2) going back to early September. That mad dash includes four consecutive road wins -- two in the playoffs. The recent, healthy returns of Brian Ching (remember him?) and speedy Calen Carr, plus Adam Moffat's emergence in midfield have meant so much.
Plus, history has taught us that if Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear isn't in the MLS Cup final, he's probably not far from his next one. Kinnear, 44, the youngest MLS coach to reach 100 league wins, won championships in 2006 and 2007. Two years ago his Dynamo came within a ref's whistle of upsetting the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in a bizarre Western Conference final.
Kinnear, a remarkable 10-4-2 in the playoffs for the Orange, said he's still looking for the foul that nullified a potential game-winner in that 2009 West final, notorious for a pair of power outages. One served as a timely "reset" for Los Angeles when Houston had grabbed all the momentum.
Kinnear says his team hasn't spent a second pondering that match; there's no motive of revenge or campaign against disrespect or any of that. Kinnear has his men team living in the moment, nothing more, nothing less. It's always been that way for a team of blue-collar grinders, unassuming and approachable off the field but fierce competitors between the lines.
No MLS side competes harder, digging into every tackle, expending energy for every second ball and holding one another accountable for all the little things.
"That's their trademark," said Todd Dunivant, the Galaxy's steady left back, who was just claimed a league Best XI honor. "They're a physical team. They're good on set pieces, good in the air, good at putting crosses in."
In other words, good stewards of the simple stuff. But so is Los Angeles. In fact, one deciding factor Sunday will be the Dynamo's ability to clear crosses and then quickly clear their penalty area, preventing Juninho or Beckham from targeting those potentially devastating long-range shots. That puts Dynamo center backs Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron on the spot.
Cameron's emergence along Houston's back line of tall trees is another fascinating subplot. Everyone wants to see Omar Gonzalez, the Galaxy's fine young center back and recent MLS Defender of the Year winner, in Jurgen Klinsmann's national team. But Cameron has the potential to lap Gonzalez (and others) on Klinsmann's quirky depth chart. The numbers sure suggest so; the Dynamo is allowing a paltry 0.80 goals per contest since Cameron's move from midfield to defense in mid-September. Compare that to 1.26 previously.
"I think he's found a home at center back," Kinnear said. "And what people don't talk about is what he does for us coming forward out of that spot. He's comfortable back there now. He's really embraced it and I think he'll get even better."
Davis' injury, a quadriceps muscle torn in the Eastern Conference final win over Kansas City, removes some sting from the Dynamo's signature set piece danger. Half of Davis' league-leading 16 assists came off his extraordinarily accurate corner kick or free kick delivery.
The Galaxy has an injury issue, too, although nothing like Houston's. Striker Chad Barrett, a master of want-to but sometimes a poor finisher, is out. Arena's fix-it options include pulling either Donovan or Mike Magee from their wide midfield spots for insertion next to Keane. Magee seems unlikely since he's found such great spots near net lately; he has three goals in three playoff games, all off Beckham's precision service. (Magee says if you get to the right spot, Beckham essentially banks the ball in off you.)
Keane, by the way, doesn't seem the least bit affected by his busy travels, having returned Wednesday from Ireland international duty. He was back at training on Thursday.
After Thursday's training, during media interviews, the topic of pressure kept recurring for Galaxy players. It may be a small sample, but L.A. hasn't come through in many big games during Beckham's tenure. They lost in the 2009 MLS Cup final and were routed at home in last year's playoffs by unfancied Dallas. Thus, so much is now weighs on the Galaxy, while so many see the Dynamo as mere foils for the final coronation of Beckham's days and nights in America.
"I guess, but at end day, we both have a Cup to play for," Dunivant said. "So whether there's pressure or not, I don't know. We've been probably the favorites in most of the game we've played this year, so that's not a new position for us. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. The first two games we played with them this year don't matter. That game in '09 game when the lights kept going out, none of that matters. It all comes down to Sunday, to who plays best."