November 26, 2012

Galaxy versus Dynamo, check. Hosted at the Home Depot Center, check. Media storm over David Beckham's last game with L.A., check. If it weren't for the fact that, this time, the exit of England's most be-tatted son is official the space-time continuum might be in serious trouble.

If MLS had to face an identical rematch of last year's MLS Cup final, at least there's enough drama to keep it interesting. The playoff rivalry between these two teams is maturing, with L.A. sending Houston packing in two of the last three years. The fanfare around Beckham's imminent departure will provide ample motivation for his team to shoot the lights out in this one (figuratively boys, let's not have a repeat of 2009).

Of course, underneath all that, there's still a game to be played.

Same old story ... right?

If there's one thing that creates more déjà vu than the matchup itself, it's talking about Houston and set pieces. The men in orange have been a force from dead-ball situations for years, with Brad Davis proudly leading the charge. The man who has out-Beckhamed Beckham when it comes to delivery in MLS was a big miss for Houston in last year's final.

But the 2011 Dynamo will not be playing Saturday, and version 2012 doesn't boast the devastating 33 percent of goals from set pieces its predecessor did. Houston has scored just 23 percent of its goals from free kicks this season, a respectable tally by any measure but certainly not the kind of domination fans saw last year.

That's what happens when your reputation precedes you. For three of the last four seasons, the Dynamo ranked among the top three in MLS for corner kicks won, averaging as many as 5.4 per game last season. This year, they were dead last.

Their fouls suffered have seen a similar, if more gradual, decline. Teams know that Davis thrives on those chances and have gone out of their way to stifle them. L.A. was no exception when they kept the Dynamo below their average fouls and corners won in their only meeting this season, a 2-1 victory to Houston.

Dominic Kinnear's men haven't taken things sitting down, though. Against D.C. United, they exhibited their ability to adopt quick free kicks as an alternative to Davis' sweeping aerial balls. With the ability to switch to Plan B, and the fact that Davis will actually be on the field this time, the Dynamo may well be able to take this rematch.

Whose show is this anyway?

It's no wonder L.A.'s somersaulting Irishman Robbie Keane snagged top spot in the MLS Castrol Index rating "the best performing players in MLS" (sorry Wondolowski fans, 23 percent of your goals from the penalty spot doesn't cut it for Castrol). Keane accounted for 27 percent of the Galaxy's goals during the season and has more than doubled his contribution to 56 percent in the postseason.

The Houston defense can't just mark him as a goal-scoring threat, either. Keane proved that he is just as capable of providing for those around him as he is of taking the glory for himself. In addition to his 16 regular-season goals, Keane notched nine assists in a little over 2,500 minutes.

That means scoring or directly contributing to a goal every 100 minutes. Among players with more than 2,500 minutes, that puts him second only to Wondolowski who stopped racing against his league contemporaries a long time ago.

While the Galaxy will look to Keane to get the job done, it's Beckham who will take the spotlight. Whether or not he can end his Galaxy career in fairy-tale fashion is another matter altogether.

The man of the hour has scored 18 goals in his MLS career, five of them game winners, and made 16 appearances in playoff matches. One conspicuous absence from his record, though, is a single playoff goal. As far as the scriptwriters are concerned, there's no better time to get it.

Whether he nets one or not, you wouldn't bet against Becks hooking up with L.A.'s prolific striker from the Emerald Isle, having averaged an assist every other playoff appearance. Unfortunately for Keane, even the game-winner won't be enough to take him out of his wingman's shadow on this occasion.

Marathon Men

It's not easy being an MLS team. After running the gauntlet of a season now almost as long as their European counterparts, it's not enough to simply come out on top of the league. A club wanting to hoist the trophy must also weather the playoffs, which can now constitute as many as six extra games.

Little surprise, then, that the teams to make deep runs recently have largely been those with the least punishing schedules. In 2010, the three playoff teams with the fewest games in all competitions made it to the semifinals (FC Dallas with 31, San Jose with 31 and Colorado with 30) and it was a similar story in 2011, when Kansas City and Houston, two of the three playoff teams with the fewest games (34) made it to the semifinals.

This year hasn't seen the same pattern. Seattle, L.A. and Houston were the three playoff teams with the most games played, and yet all three fought through to the semifinals, while two progressed to the final.

So presumably, Saturday's final features a showdown between two of the most tired teams in MLS. Generally, that would play into the hands of Houston, which clawed its way through by striking fast when it got the chance and defended leads, but for one thing.

L.A. has proven the exception to fatigue the last two seasons, playing the fourth most games of teams in the playoffs in 2010 and third most in 2011 but making it to the Western Conference final both years and MLS Cup in 2011. For all their star power, the Galaxy's greatest asset in recent seasons has been their ability to battle tired legs unfazed.

If they can grind out just one more result, Beckham, and Major League Soccer, just might get the Hollywood ending everyone's been waiting for.

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