LOS ANGELES -- What are the best ways to preview the 17th MLS Cup final, Saturday's showdown between Los Angeles and Houston (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, TeleFutura)?
One way to start is by asking what's at stake. If Los Angeles wins, the Galaxy would tie D.C. United for the most MLS Cup trophies in league history (four); Landon Donovan would earn his record-tying fifth MLS championship ring; David Beckham would leave MLS with two straight league titles; and Bruce Arena would strengthen his claim as the greatest-ever U.S. soccer coach with his fourth MLS Cup in six trips to the final.
If Houston wins, the Dynamo would claim their third MLS Cup victory in seven seasons, one more than the Galaxy would have won during the same time period; coach Dominic Kinnear would tie Arena with three MLS Cups and stake a claim as MLS' top playoff manager; and Brad Davis might finally get his due as one of the most productive players in league history.
Also at stake, in some ways at least, is the value of the big spend. The sample size is small, of course, but last year's L.A. triumph marked the first time that a team with a Designated Player had won the MLS Cup final since the rule was instituted in 2007. DPs are far more common now in the league, but in terms of payroll there are bigger-spending teams (L.A., New York, Toronto) and lower-spending teams, and Houston is still on the smaller end of the spectrum. Beckham to Robbie Keane to Donovan defined last year's final victory for L.A. -- its three DPs combining for the winning goal -- and if they win again you might start to hear more talk of a divide between larger- and smaller-market teams in MLS.
Then again, New York and Toronto haven't exactly distinguished themselves with their higher payrolls, and the teams with the league's second- and third-lowest wage bills (Kansas City and San Jose) had the best records in the Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively, during the regular season. If Houston can pull a mild upset and take down the Galaxy on Saturday, you could argue that "The Team Is the Star" philosophy is alive and well in MLS.
Here are the lineups I expect to see:
How would a Houston victory play out? Well, the Dynamo do have a talent disadvantage vs. the Galaxy, and there's nobody in orange who can match the creative flourishes of Beckham and Donovan or the next-level finishing ability of Keane. But Davis' presence in this year's Big Game adds a dimension that we didn't see last year when he missed the final due to injury. His crosses, free kicks and shooting danger from distance are huge for the Dynamo, and Los Angeles can't afford to give him any space. For Houston to win, it will also have to continue being industrious in the midfield -- Clark has been terrific in the postseason clogging things ups -- and frustrate the Galaxy while making the most of the chances the Dynamo does get, likely through Bruin and (a DP!) Boniek García.
There will also be tremendous pressure on the Houston center backs, Boswell and Taylor, who have performed well in the postseason but face by far their toughest challenge here. I suspect Arena will deploy Donovan as a midfielder, which has been a far more effective strategy in the playoffs because it allows Donovan to combine with Beckham in a way that doesn't happen as much when Donovan is a forward. For all the talk about Beckham and Donovan's personalities and storylines -- and it's possible this could be the last MLS game for
My sense is we'll see more goals than in last year's 1-0 final. Houston has more attacking options now, and I see them scoring at least once. But I also think the home-field advantage, that extra bit of quality and the force of history unfolding will be on the Galaxy's side in a game that could be a classic.