Dynamo out of MLS Cup spotlight, which suits them just fine
The news that Beckham is leaving the Galaxy after this weekend's MLS Cup has turned the match into a Thanksgiving service for the bountiful harvest of publicity and credibility the midfielder has brought MLS since 2007.
So in the grand media narrative the Dynamo are remarkably hard to notice for a club that has reached its fourth MLS Cup in seven years and plays in eyeball-assaulting bright orange. This week, Houston appears to be hiding in plain sight. The spotlight on Los Angeles puts its opponent in the shadows.
Its pedigree deserves more discussion; not that Houston seems to mind the relative lack of attention, which lowers the risk of distraction and suits its unshowy temperament. At Monday's Dynamo press conference there was a quiet confidence that they will crash the event and shock the hosts.
"I don't place too much emphasis on the fact this is his last year," goalkeeper Tally Hall said of Beckham. "We thought it was last year and it wasn't. Not disrespectfully, I don't really care that much."
It might be the self-assurance that comes from a 2-1 win at home in the only regular-season meeting between the clubs this year, a May afternoon so baking hot that the match should have ended not with a final whistle but a microwave ding.
It could be the serenity of knowing the team is fully fit, with Jermaine Taylor and Calen Carr recovered from injury. Critically, playmaker Brad Davis is healthy. He missed last year's final with a quad injury, and without him the Dynamo were as creative as a town-hall bureaucrat.
Perhaps it's the satisfaction of ousting Eastern Conference favorite Sporting Kansas City and feisty D.C. United in these playoffs. The wins came from persuasive first-leg home performances then stubborn road resistance, showing the Dynamo have the endeavor to establish a lead and the resilience to protect it.
The knowledge that with Oscar Boniek Garcia jinking down the right flank, Ricardo Clark patrolling the midfield, formation flexibility and good options off the bench, the team is stronger this year than last, despite its East playoff seed (fifth).
Or just that a second successive Cup defeat in Carson is too appalling to contemplate, too damning a destiny. Asked to describe exactly how last year's loss tasted, the otherwise chatty Hall did not want to advance beyond "pretty much terrible."
If Hall and friends are less than fascinated by the fuss over Beckham, it points to a philosophical difference. This year's MLS finale features the same clubs as in 2011, but it is a culture clash: blue collar versus red carpet, glamor against grit. The international and the local.
"The Dynamo have always been an organization that strives for team effort, placing the team's needs above the individual's needs, and that's a reason for the success," Hall said. Players repeatedly referred to "the group."
The contrast between L.A. and Houston is ingrained in the image of their cities, their team-building and tactics, even the names of the franchises: a dynamo requires its parts to work in harmony to generate electricity; a galaxy is an assembly of stars.
There was a symbolic quality to L.A.'s winner last year: the Designated Player trio of Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan combined on the play. It was not just a goal, it was a supernova.
The clubs are siblings in the AEG family, but the elder brother gets the most pocket money from the parents. Beckham and Keane each earn more than the entire Dynamo roster combined. According to analysis of the latest figures from the MLS players' union, the Dynamo's 2012 player wage bill is around $3.3 million in guaranteed compensation for 27 players; the Galaxy's, $12.7 million for 31.
Aside from the lack of famous faces, it is especially difficult to recognize the Dynamo players since it seems like half the roster is sporting playoffs beards. A training session resembles a James Harden tribute act, or an episode of Survivor: Texas. You wouldn't imagine a team this well-coached, this motivated, this relentless, would put any stock in superstition.
"I feel extremely confident in this group right now and what we've been doing, I think we've been playing great and gotten some great results so far on the road," Davis said. "This has been a very tough postseason run for us, if not the hardest run we've had, and the group's stepped up to every challenge. With having that opportunity last year there's a little bit of fire still there that wants to go back and be victorious."
The club expects between 1,500 and 2,000 fans to travel to California.
"I don't look at it as L.A.'s at home, I look at it as the MLS Cup's being played at the Home Depot Center," Dominic Kinnear, the relentlessly sensible head coach, said. "We're not going to go in there and sit back and be the away team. It's a cup final, and that's how we're going to approach it.
"If that's added motivation, to beat the team that beat you in the final, that's wonderful -- you have to use that in the right way. The most important thing is to focus on the 90 minutes on Saturday rather than look back at what happened a year ago."
Beckham was a dramatic accelerant in the MLS growth process. The Dynamo developed not through celebrity but construction: of a consistently winning team and soccer-specific infrastructure. This season brought a new downtown stadium and the opening of an impressive training facility.
Houston was the fourth-best supported club in MLS in 2012, behind Seattle, L.A. and Montreal. Attendance leapt from an average of 17,694 last year to 21,015, with a significant boost in corporate income from swanky boxes built for the oil and gas crowd.
Solid platforms are not sexy, but they are the future, what with the supply of English megastars with magical right feet, global brands and pop star wives being strictly limited.
Regardless of the coming result, the Dynamo are well placed for the post-Beckham era. As MLS moves from adolescence to maturity, foundations will matter more than headlines. The departure of the league's biggest name will mark a shift in emphasis from the power of one man to the might of the collective.