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Galaxy win far from foregone conclusion

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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WINNER TAKE ALL

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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.

KEYS TO VICTORY: DYNAMO

Getting the right ball from Camargo

Without Brad Davis to drive the attack, the playmaking duties fall to Brazilian Luiz Camargo, who showed in the East final that he is capable of unlocking defenses with killer passes. Former Sao Paulo teammate Juninho and David Beckham will have the challenge of cutting off Camargo’s options. If they contain Camargo, the Dynamo could be left starving for chances.

Covering Cameron’s runs

Geoff Cameron does a great job of taking advantage of chances to surge forward from the centerback position to pressure opposing defenses. Look for him to do this against LA, and when he does, his teammates must cover for him well or risk being torched by the Galaxy’s deadly counterattack. Working in the Dynamo’s favor is the fact that Cameron’s move to centerback happened a dozen games ago, which has given his teammates time to gain experience covering his runs.

Smothering the flanks

Mike Magee and Landon Donovan do a good job of getting in behind defenders and wingers who press forward and taking advantage of space. That’s a luxury they won’t have as much of against Houston fullbacks Andre Hainault and Jermaine Taylor, who are both extremely unlikely to get forward much. Magee and Donovan will need to pinch in centrally to draw the fullbacks away from their deep positions in order to find space to operate, as well as potentially creating space for fullbacks Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin.

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.

KEYS TO VICTORY: GALAXY

Feeding Robbie Keane

It seems simple enough: Get Keane the ball, and watch him score. It won’t be so simple against Houston’s stingy defense, but the Galaxy showed against Real Salt Lake that they have the passing ability to find Keane in good spots to do damage, and even though Geoff Cameron is a tough defender to deal with, Keane has beaten his share of top defenders.

Isolating Donovan on Taylor

As much as Houston talked up Jermaine Taylor’s one-on-one defensive ability, the Jamaican defender will be hard-pressed to contain Donovan if the US national team star can get some service his way. The more Donovan can force Corey Ashe to drop back and help Taylor, the more room Sean Franklin can have to get forward and join the attack as well.

Tightening up their set-piece defending

Real Salt Lake showed flaws in the Galaxy’s set piece defending, something Houston will try to exploit with all their big bodies. Not having Brad Davis to provide the service is a big blow, but Adam Moffatt can also strike a good ball, and he will have plenty of dangerous targets to aim for, like Bobby Boswell and Brian Ching.

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.

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