FOX Soccer Exclusive
Galaxy win far from foregone conclusion
It has all the makings of a mismatch, but a closer look at the 2011 MLS Cup Final reveals that calling it the inevitable coronation of David Beckham and the LA Galaxy might just be premature.
Sure, there are plenty of reasons to call the Galaxy the favorites against the Houston Dynamo. From the fact LA is playing Sunday’s final in their home stadium (Home Depot Center), where they haven’t lost an MLS match all year, to the fact the Galaxy were the best team in the league all season while the Dynamo entered the MLS Cup Final on the strength of a season-saving late surge. Throw in the fact Houston will be without MLS MVP finalist Brad Davis due to injury and you can start to understand why the MLS Cup Final is being seen by some as a foregone conclusion.
The Galaxy are deserved favorites, but Houston is well-equipped to pull the upset. The Dynamo are playing excellent team defense and showed in their Eastern Conference final victory over Sporting Kansas City that they have the discipline to shut down even the most high-powered attacking.
Los Angeles will pose far different problems. With star midfielder David Beckham being such a threat on set pieces and forward Robbie Keane in top form, the Dynamo back-line will have to avoid giving up dangerous set pieces and limit the service Keane receives.
“With the caliber of players they have, it's going to be hard to stop them completely,” said Houston central defender Geoff Cameron. “They're going to get their opportunities just like we're going to get our opportunities, but it's minimizing their opportunities and that's putting pressure on them, not letting them get a free look, hit the balls in behind us.
“If we play our game and have the mentality we've had throughout this postseason, I think we'll be all right.”
For Cameron's central defense partner, Bobby Boswell, disrupting LA's flow will be key.
“If we can frustrate them I think it’ll be a good day for us," Boswell said. "You don’t want them to get into a rhythm, and with a back four that are centerbacks, you basically have four organizers in the back.”
“I sure don’t think it’ll be a high-scoring game,” Boswell said. “I hope it’s a good game for everyone to watch, but I’ll take the ugliest game possible if we can walk out of here with a result.”
Houston’s defense will present a unique challenge for a Galaxy side that relies heavily on the counterattack and catching opponents out. With the Dynamo expected to start converted natural central defenders Jermaine Taylor and Andre Hainault at left back and right back respectively, Houston will essentially be fielding big, strong defenders who won’t give the Galaxy much to work with on the counter.
“They’re a physical group,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said of Houston’s defense. “They’re a little different than most back-lines. It’s not a team where you want to play a lot of long balls in the air against the back-line because of their strengths."
Houston’s defense isn’t exactly made up of four bruisers though, not with fast and athletic Geoff Cameron in central defense, where he will likely be called in to try and shut down Robbie Keane.
The Galaxy’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked either, not when you consider it is the strongest back-line in the league, having just finished a season where they allowed fewer goals than any other team in MLS.
In the face of LA's defense, Houston looks like a team that will struggle to score, particularly given the absence of Davis, out with a torn thigh muscle. The Dynamo still have some good offensive weapons, including Brian Ching up front and Brazilian playmaker Luiz Camargo in central midfield, but filling the void left by Davis' injury will be vital to the Dynamo's chances of lifting the MLS Cup.
“You can’t replace Brad, just for the season he’s having, what he means to this team,” Ching said. “A guy like that is a leader on our team and you can’t really replace him, but having said all that, we’ve always been a team and no player is bigger than the team.
“You look back in (2006) and (2007), we missed key players in those finals as well and we still came out as a team and won championships.”
That is the beauty of the MLS Cup Final. It is one game, and even the regular season's best team can be beaten on a given night. The Galaxy were heavily favored in the 2009 MLS Cup Final against a Real Salt Lake side that reached the final as the lowest-seeded team in the playoffs. That didn’t matter much to RSL, which knocked the Galaxy off in penalties. Last year, the Colorado Rapids were the seventh-best team in the regular season but still managed to defeat a favored FC Dallas side that featured MLS MVP David Ferreira.
The Galaxy should be at full strength for Sunday’s final, which means David Beckham appears to have recovered from any potential ailments that kept him out of training recently.
"I’m feeling good," Beckham said after practice on Saturday. "Sat out obviously the last couple days but good to be back out there with the guys and as a team we're ready.
“My body feels great, so it shouldn't be a problem, shouldn't be an issue."
Beckham could be playing in his final match for the Galaxy after a five-year span with the team. His contract with LA expires this winter, and while he has consistently denied having already made a decision on his future, the potential for Beckham’s swan song, as well as the fact the Galaxy are playing for a final at home, have made tickets for Sunday’s MLS Cup Final the toughest buy in MLS history.
Fans will be filling Home Depot Center hoping the Galaxy make history, but the visitors in orange are well-equipped to spoil the party and just might turn what some are expecting to be an easy victory for the home team into a tough and tight battle worthy of an MLS Cup Final.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.