Tip Sheet: Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry take center stage as MLS conference finals start

BY Kyle McCarthy • November 21, 2014

Legacy isn't much of a concern for Landon Donovan or Thierry Henry at this point. Their places in the firmament do not hinge on landing one more trophy or stepping off the stage as champions. Their track records in MLS and throughout their careers afford them the luxury of departing on their own terms.

Their impending departures -- Donovan with his confirmed march into retirement once LA Galaxy concludes the postseason, Henry with his expected exit from New York when the Red Bulls exit -- loom large over the proceedings poised to unfold over the next two weekends nevertheless.

How large? Galaxy captain, forward and MLS MVP frontrunner Robbie Keane spent a portion of his Thursday morning reflecting on the idea that he and his teammates should try to win one for the departing Donovan (he quite correctly shifted the focus back onto the collective). Henry fielded questions later in the day about whether he would play on the artificial surface at Gillette Stadium next weekend (he demurred).

Those interludes offered a glimpse into the compelling and pervasive narratives surrounding Donovan and Henry for the past several months. The interest and the speculation about their futures is largely warranted given their contributions and their profiles. Their presence in the conference final provides an extra sprinkling of star dust for a pair of series -- New York and New England in the Eastern Conference, LA Galaxy and Seattle in the Western Conference -- with plenty of compelling threads already.

Donovan and Henry create intrigue through their accomplishments and through their disparate approaches to their denouements. Donovan basked in the adulation of ceremony after ceremony over the past few months. His departure merits appreciation for the outsized role he played in cultivating soccer in this country, but it stands in rather stark contrast to Henry's approach to the same situation. The former France star ignored the opportunities afforded to him – bar the special moment shared when the Red Bulls hosted Arsenal in a friendly this summer – and sidestepped question after the question about his future.

Their common bond -- aside from their brilliance and their influence in MLS -- stems from their shared desire to end this season as champions once more. They do not need to win MLS Cup to validate their work this season or during this period in their careers. They simply want to chase a trophy because they still possess the drive required to pursue it.

It is a journey worth following over the next two -- and potentially three -- weekends. Their place in the history books does not depend on the outcome, but the last throes of their careers will offer a final, enduring glimpse before they step away for good.

Five Points – Conference final, first leg

1. What role will the layoff play this weekend?: All four teams coped with an extra week off and took three mandatory days away from the training field pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The extra time off might help some players with knocks or aging legs, but it will also disrupt the usual rhythm. The involved teams and players must figure out a way to start brightly to ward off any lingering effects.

2. Is Osvaldo Alonso fit?: Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said all of the right things about Alonso and his nagging hamstring complaint. If Alonso is even 80 percent fit, then he might fight his way onto the field. The true test will come at StubHub Center on Sunday. Alonso must exert his usual influence over the match to give Seattle a chance to secure a precious road result.

3. How will New York cope without Roy Miller?: Miller will miss both legs of the Eastern Conference final after his tour de force of indiscipline in the second leg against D.C. United. His absence will force Red Bulls coach Mike Petke to turn to the relatively inexperienced Ambroise Oyongo to fill the void at left back. Oyongo offers more of a threat going forward with his endeavor and his pace, but he must pick up the right spots defensively in order to stay connected with the Red Bulls' back four and stop the Revs from exploiting the additional space afforded on the counter.

4. Focus on the center of the park ...: Both conference finals will hinge on how the proceedings unfold through the central channel. Seattle must disrupt the Galaxy's possession without sacrificing its ability to provide direct service to Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, while New England and New York must both tussle for supremacy with their midfield threes. There are any number of factors (including the next point) poised to determine the outcomes in both ties, but the operations in central midfield supply a base for all of them.

5. ... and wait to see if the stars shine: All four sides boast performers capable of altering the calculus with one inspired moment. The first legs could easily come down to a touch of class from Dempsey, Donovan, Henry, Keane, Jermaine Jones, Martins or Lee Nguyen. They could just as easily cede the floor to their capable supporting casts depending on the situation. It is a balance worth monitoring as these series unfold.