Beckham’s return sparking L.A. to life

One by one, the top seeds in the Major League Soccer playoffs fell this past weekend, each of them succumbing to the sins of wasted chances and lax defending, but one title favorite was able to emerge unscathed and now stands as the only thing preventing an all-Cinderella MLS Cup final.

The Los Angeles Galaxy finished with the best record in MLS this year, helped in part by some amazing early-season form, but Bruce Arena’s squad showed against the Seattle Sounders that, with the help of a healthy David Beckham, it may be ready to play its best soccer of the season when it matters most.

Beckham’s service made quick work of Seattle’s makeshift defense on Sunday, setting up both Galaxy goals, while the Galaxy’s organized and tenacious defense flustered the usually dangerous Sounders attack, limiting them to one goal in 180 minutes of soccer.

The Galaxy did what New York, Columbus and Real Salt Lake could not, finishing chances when they came and defending at home like playing at home mattered. Perhaps it helped Los Angeles to be able to watch New York waste chances and give up ugly counterattacking goals, and watch the Crew muster just two goals despite thoroughly dominating a Colorado side that succeeded in holding on for dear life. Surely, seeing RSL give up an early goal at home, much like New York did, was enough to remind the Galaxy how important it would be to avoid early mistakes.

It doesn’t hurt that Beckham is back from the torn Achilles that forced him to miss the World Cup and most of the 2010 MLS season. He has returned with a clear motivation to help the Galaxy finish the work it began last season, when Los Angeles lost the MLS Cup after a penalty kick shootout.

The English star isn’t just delivering quality free kicks. He has brought a balance to the Galaxy midfield by providing a relentless work rate on the right wing to go along with Landon Donovan’s effort on the left. It is the two-way ability of the two superstars that helped the Galaxy shut down Seattle’s dangerous attack. Ultimately, their ability to control the wings should make them a favorite against the remaining teams in the playoff field.

It is fitting that Beckham and the Galaxy are the remaining powerhouse in a field of surprises. Los Angeles is the double Designated Player-boasting powerhouse facing off against a trio of Western Conference foes who have a combined one designated player (San Jose’s Geovanni), and all of whom missed the playoffs last season.

Three teams who have every right to trumpet the “Nobody believed we could do it” battle cry.

FC Dallas probably has the biggest gripe in the lack of respect department. Schellas Hyndman’s team posted a 19-match unbeaten streak just before the end of the season, a streak that made it clear his team was capable of being a playoff threat, but facing defending champion Real Salt Lake in the first round made Dallas the team hype forgot.

RSL was penciled into the Western Conference final in most brackets outside Texas, but Dallas used the underdog label as motivation and used its edge in team speed and midfield work rate to push the reigning champs to the brink.

RSL ultimately couldn’t overcome the loss of playmaker Javier Morales (suspended) and Alvaro Saborio’s injury-induced ineffectiveness. Even without its top two attacking weapons, RSL still had plenty of chances, but Kevin Hartman showed why he had a strong case for being the 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year (an award won by L.A.’s Donovan Ricketts).

Dallas is an easy team to overlook because of the lack of marquee names, but the squad boasts quality throughout and you don’t rattle off a 19-match unbeaten streak without having some serious talent. From Hartman in goal, to the very underrated George John anchoring the defense, to MVP candidate David Ferreira creating in midfield, to MLS career scoring leader Jeff Cunningham up top, Dallas has plenty of weapons to keep proving doubters wrong, which the club will have the chance to do against a Galaxy team heavily favored to beat them Western Conference final.

In the Eastern Conference, party crashers San Jose and Colorado benefited from the awful finishing and their own ability to withstand heavy pressure on the road to secure their conference final places. Colorado will host the East final, but given the fact that San Jose looked more impressive in winning its series, the Earthquakes may actually enter as a slight favorite.

Colorado isn’t exactly a sexy team filled with star power, but the Rapids are tough at home and boast quality tandems at forward and in central midfield that will make life difficult for the Earthquakes. Omar Cummings will need to start finishing the chances he missed so badly against Columbus if the Rapids are going to defend home field in the converence final. The Rapids defense will also need to be on guard because while San Jose may not boast the weapons Columbus did, the Earthquakes are finishing chances with deadly precision.

Whether it is Colorado or San Jose, the winner from the east will be regarded as the underdog in the MLS Cup, a label both would be glad to wear given how favorites have done this postseason. Los Angeles won’t be wearing the underdog label any time soon, but with an in-form Beckham to bolster an already-loaded lineup, the Galaxy could be two weeks away from going from title favorites to title holders.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.