LA, Houston coaches earn their stripes
The halftime break can mean different things to different teams. It can be the welcome respite for a group coming under fire, or the poorly-timed break that a surging side hates to see.
For coaches, particularly great coaches, the halftime break is winning time; those precious minutes when a coach tweaks tactics, changes personnel, or gives a rousing speech to provide the right amount of inspiration and motivation.
We don’t know what Dom Kinnear and Bruce Arena told their players at halftime of two tied games in Sunday’s MLS conference finals, but what we do know is that two coaches with two MLS Cups apiece already on their resumes made all the right moves and positioned their teams to return to the championship game they each know so well.
All the Houston Dynamo and LA Galaxy did on Sunday was take games tied at halftime and play two of the most impressive halves of playoff soccer in recent memory, turning those draws into convincing conference final victories.
Real Salt Lake was expected to give the Galaxy everything they could handle, and that’s what the 2009 MLS Cup champions brought. When Alvaro Saborio responded to Landon Donovan’s penalty kick goal with his own header finish and Kyle Beckerman blasted a chance off the post, just as Robbie Keane had earlier in the first half, the Western Conference final went into halftime looking like anybody’s contest.
The second half was a completely different story. LA started creating chances from the start, stretching RSL apart with overwhelming counterattacks and breaking through when Mike Magee headed home a David Beckham cross.
Bruce Arena enjoys victory with Landon Donovan. (Stephen Dunn, Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Saborio nearly equalized just two minutes later, but that was as close as RSL came, with Keane finishing the visitor off with a beautiful dribble, cutback and finish to put the match out of reach and start the party at Home Depot Center.
The 3-1 scoreline didn’t do justice to just how thoroughly the Galaxy ran away with the game or how expertly LA was able to break down a normally stingy RSL defense and pull away. It was clear that Arena wanted his team to go on the attack and rather than sit back and pick their spots, as they did in their series win against New York, the Galaxy began throwing numbers forward and getting good passes into the final third to create too many chances for RSL to handle.
Real Salt Lake was short-handed on Sunday night, missing with defensive standout Nat Borchers sidelined and Jamison Olave barely fit. But the Galaxy’s dominant second-half showing came primarily as a result of with their offensive execution rather than any of their visitor’s limitations.
The Dynamo could have been on the wrong end of a disappointing second half too, and would have had a reasonable excuse considering they lost MVP candidate and leading attacking threat Brad Davis to a leg injury in the first half. Kinnear wasn’t going to let his team feel sorry for themselves. All he did was reconfigure his side into a more defensive-minded squad equipped to withstand Sporting KC’s attacking thrusts, while also creating chances of their own.
Whether the sight of Brad Davis being carried off gave Sporting KC a false sense of security, or Kansas City’s inexperience ultimately shone through, the host looked lackluster after the interval instead of seizing their opportunity.
Dominic Kinnear set his team up perfectly at Livestrong Sporting Park. (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Andre Hainault’s goal woke Sporting KC up, but Dynamo was well-equipped to deal with that setback. So well, in fact, that Sporting never did truly test Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall, an amazing fact considering how dangerous Sporting KC have been on the attack at home all season.
It was actually Houston’s previous visit to Livestrong Sporting Park that planted the seeds for Sunday night’s victory. On that night, almost two months ago, Sporting KC rolled to a 3-0 victory over Houston. The next game saw Kinnear turn to a new centerback tandem in Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron, a unit that finished out the regular season together and has been key to Dynamo going unbeaten in nine, including Sunday.
On Sunday night, Cameron and Boswell partnered with centerbacks-turned-fullbacks Hainault and Jermaine Taylor to give Houston a big, strong and athletic foursome to contain Sporting KC’s forwards and the quartet held KC’s three-man forward line to just one shot on goal in the second half and three for the game.
With their forwards muffled and with Houston not surrendering free kicks, Sporting KC’s offense sputtered and ultimately fell short while the Dynamo added a late insurance goal to secure the victory and earn Houston its third trip to the MLS Cup Final in six years.
Now Arena and Kinnear will lead their troops to the 2011 MLS Cup Final and they will each have two weeks to prepare their teams.
Arena will be coaching his fifth MLS Cup Final, but both he and Kinnear will be seeking a third career championships. The Galaxy will be the heavy favorite, even more so with Houston missing Brad Davis, but if we learned anything from the Dynamo’s win at LiveStrong Park, it is that you can’t rule them out.
When Kinnear and Arena stand across from each other at the 2011 MLS Cup Final, it will mark the first time an MLS Cup Final has featured two head coaches with multiple titles on their resumes. They each reminded us on Sunday just how good they both are at making the right moves and adjustments, and with those two coaches on the sidelines, the final should be a game to remember.