MLS Cup Preview 2011

It seems stupid to say about an MLS team that they are weighed down by history, but it's tempting with the Galaxy.  Take this stat - this utterly, utterly meaningless stat: Los Angeles has been to MLS Cup six times, and five of those games went into overtime.  Favorite, underdog, rain, sunshine, great uniforms, crummy uniforms, offense-oriented, defense-first, great game, awful game, Foxboro, Columbus, Frisco, Seattle, Cobi, Donovan, Campos, Hartman, the other Donovan, Beckham, Osiander, Schmid, Sampson or Arena.  The Galaxy come to MLS Cup, and it's clenching time.    Coincidence.  Sheer, unalloyed coincidence.  The Galaxy could wear 1996 throwbacks on Sunday and it still wouldn't matter.  Naturally, guess which pointless and irrelevant triviality has been haunting my waking hours this week. 

Fortuantely for my sanity, the opponent is Houston, and not just because we'll finally find out whether either of these teams can beat someone in a final besides the Revolution.  The nice thing about the Houston Dynamo is that their history is so convoluted that it forces people to focus on the present.  Which is an unmixed blessing, as no one will be tempted to link what Frank Yallop and Landon Donovan did in 2001 with this squad. 

Which is also helpful, because the Dynamo's past hardly qualifies as prologue.  Even this year's progress has been convoluted.  Jason Garey and Will Bruin started at forward for Houston on opening night, Geoff Cameron was a midfielder, and the Dynamo lost at home to the Union (who, in retrospect, should have timed their Robertson Stadium win a little better). 

Well, you don't get Coach of the Year for correcting your own mistakes any more than you do for finishing seventh, but it sure looks like Dominic Kinnear had made the proper adjustments.

And yet...I realize this might simply be devious misinformation, but I'm a little concerned about the Set Pieces or Bust approach the Dynamo seem to be depending on.  Against a Bruce Arena team? 

For that to happen, the Dynamo are going to have to control possession almost completely - because anything Houston can do as far as putting set pieces in to the net, the Galaxy can do better.  So the crucial man in the game is going to be Juninho, the Galaxy's ballwinner.  Just to let you know where I stand here, I think it's stupid Juninho wasn't part of the MLS Best XI, so you can see why I don't think Houston will control the midfield.  Luiz Camargo is going to really have to earn his salary on Sunday.

And then there's Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan.  I mean, it's nice that Dynamo defenders are tall, and everything, but if Keane and Donovan skip right by them, what good is all that height?  Geoff Cameron is absolutely good enough to make the difference here, but if Hainault and Boswell are thinking how nice it is being tall, well, there's a parable along the lines of falling harder that springs to mind.

Set pieces also put way too much of the game in the hands of the referee.  In this case, that's Ricardo Salazar, the man who red-carded David Beckham back in 2009 when he tried to amputate Peter Vagenas' leg. 

The best part of this is Gordon and Kirovski all shocked that Beckham was sent off.  The second best part is Riley's righteous indignation.

Like all MLS refs, Salazar is viciously biased against your favorite team, and thinks the game should be all about him.  In all seriousness, Salazar is a perfectly fine referee, but if he "lets 'em play," where is Houston's set piece strategy then?  Writhing in the grass after a Birchall tackle, that's where.

The set piece talk might be a Dynamo smoke screen, though, because Omar Gonzalez has not been utterly dominant during the playoffs.  Luke Rodgers and Fabian Espindola had chance after chance, and neither New York nor Salt Lake relied on set pieces.  Houston might be well served to try to split a still comparatively inexperienced Galaxy back line.  

On the other hand, the Dynamo might be talking up set pieces because they realize Ching and Carr aren't among the league's elite forward corps, Major League Soccer Soccer notwithstanding.

But...yeah, the Dynamo are going to be one of those teams who can justifiably spout that cliche, "No one believed in us!"  Because no one does, for a lot of reasons beyond Houston's control.  Losing Brad Davis was awful, but theoretically survivable - Salt Lake won in 2009 with Javier Morales injured.  But unfortunately, that was the Galaxy who lost in 2009, and to my eyes they are no longer in the business of underestimating opponents.  The Bruce Bunker can be broken down, especially if Josh Saunders' inexperience causes him to make a rash decision or two...but then, the Bruce Bunker is all about making Saunders (or Ricketts, or Perk, or Magee) very comfortable.  We're back to controlling midfield again, in other words, and I don't see the Dynamo doing that.

If you want a real wild card here, look at how Sean Franklin plays.  the Dynamo were going to key pretty hard on Donovan's side of the field anyway.  Without Brad Davis, I see Houston going all out to prevent Donovan from running wild.  That will put the spotlight on Franklin, who is quietly becoming a four or five-tool player.  If he makes the kind of passes, and if he plays the kind of defense, that will keep Robbie Keane from screaming at him all game, the Dynamo are in terrible trouble.  Neither Juninho nor Franklin will win the game's MVP award - unless Juninho has one of his CONCACAF shots - but those are the players who will decide this game.  I don't think Houston can stop them, either.

Other intangibles - the home field advantage, the scheduling that allowed Donovan, Beckham and Keane precious days off (c'mon, Estonia was a day off), the Galaxy's superior experience in MLS Cup - this has been the Galaxy's championship to lose since Juan Pablo Angel was traded. 

This Galaxy doesn't blow out much of anyone, and they'll make it painful to live through, but I think 2-1, with the nearly-obligatory Donovan penalty kick being the difference.