HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — The LA Galaxy head into Sunday’s MLS Cup final as a heavy favorite, with history and individual star power on its side. Of course, the New England Revolution is no slouch, and with Major League Soccer’s emphasis on parity and the unpredictable nature of one-off matches, it feels like anything can happen.
This town is no stranger to a storybook ending for the underdog, and the California sunshine and palm trees lining the Walk of Fame just outside the hotel where league executives stayed this week provide what could be the perfect setting for an upset.
Based on the questions in the pre-game press conference on Friday, scribes are already warming up their fingers to write a farewell story to Landon Donovan that includes the United States legend leaving the field a champion in his last professional game.
“I’m personally very excited,” Donovan said. “It seems mostly like business as usual, except there’s a final to play for and a championship.”
The opponent, however, isn’t quite as willing to buy into the pre-written story line.
“It’s something we can’t control. We can’t control the stories that are out there,” New England manager Jay Heaps said. “What we control is how we prepare for this game.”
The Revolution prepared throughout the regular season for situations of adversity. Since a league-longest eight-match losing streak in midseason, New England lost just twice.
Jermaine Jones’ controversial arrival via blind draw as a Designated Player signing in late August was a major factor in the turnaround. So was the MVP-candidate season from Lee Nguyen, an underdog himself based on his mixed success in the past in this league. On the Revs' recent run, Nguyen has pulled the strings as a playmaker with Jones’ skills complementing him on the defensive side.
Nguyen scored or assisted in each of the team’s four playoff games, continuing a similar five-game streak to close out the regular season. In the last 15 matches, the only one in which he didn’t make the score sheet was the 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew on Oct. 4, the only loss since Jones’ arrival.
These teams met once in the regular season, with the Galaxy crushing the Revolution, 5-1, in July to hand New England its worst loss of the season in the middle of its losing streak. In all-time regular-season play, LA holds a 17-15-6 head-to-head advantage, though that drops to a much slimmer 15-14-9 record counting shootout wins as draws.
The debate continues over whether Jones has pushed New England to the final, or whether Nguyen has been the main catalyst to the turnaround this season. Does the fact that Nguyen only scored once in the Revs’ streak show that he needed Jones, or does it just show how much the Revs needed Nguyen?
The only certainty is that the two of them together make New England dangerous. If the Revs lift the trophy at the StubHub Center, it will likely be because Jones and Nguyen dominated the middle of the field.
However, if Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas can hold them off in the final third and continue their effective distribution to and support of Donovan and league MVP Robbie Keane in attack, that could nullify their effect.
Juninho and Sarvas have three goals and two assists to their name during the playoffs. Juninho scored the fatal away goal off a corner kick in the semifinals against the Seattle Sounders, and Sarvas won the first leg at home with the game’s solitary goal.
When it comes time for the playoffs, the Galaxy always seems to find the right formula, and it was the hottest team in the West, just as the Revs were in the East, the last two months this season. LA has made the final nine times, including four times under manager Bruce Arena and three in the last four years.
Half of the current 30-man LA roster played in the 2012 title-winning season, the franchise’s last.
“We have a number of guys here who have been in games like this, so when this week comes around, you can tell the excitement level goes up a little bit,” Donovan said. “Other than that, no pressure. I think we’re just excited to get out and play on Sunday.”
LA and New England met twice in the final, in 2002 and 2005, with the Galaxy winning both in extra time. The latter began a bleak streak of three final losses for the Revs, giving it the ignominious tag of appearing in the most finals without winning.
Heaps played in all four of those games, and Shalrie Joseph and Andy Dorman were on the roster for the streak of three straight losses. Neither are expected to play Sunday, as Joseph hasn’t played a minute all year, and Dorman has been pushed out of the lineup by a combination of a midseason knee injury and Jones’ arrival.
With so little left over from the heartbreaking decade that was the 2000s for New England, and a bright future on the horizon that could include a new stadium in Boston, the Revs are ready to turn the page. After fielding question upon question about the underdog label and the franchise’s past failures, Heaps’ tone became a bit more curt.
“They’re not even related,” he said to finish the press conference. “Teams are living, breathing organisms, and every final, every game is different, and every team is different, so for me, that has no bearing on Sunday’s game at all.”
His team has plenty of bulletin-board material for its locker room wall, should it need any extra motivation. LA should be confident, but New England has more than just a glimmer of hope.
After all, this is a city that loves a twist ending.