By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 21, 2012) US Soccer Players -- When the LA Galaxy rushed off the podium after giving the MLS Western Conference trophy just the smallest modicum of respect on Sunday night in Seattle, the message they sent to the rest of the League echoed through the rapidly emptying expanse of Century Link Field. Anything less than a second consecutive MLS Cup wasn’t worth celebrating.
In some ways, it was an odd statement from a team with little reason to act like expectant champions. Yes, LA is the defending MLS Cup winner, having hoisted the trophy to complete a double last year at the Home Depot Center. The Galaxy didn’t start 2012 looking anything like a potential back-to-back MLS title winner, limping through the opening months of the MLS season and occupying last place for a surprising portion of the year. If anything, LA looked like a fat and happy team content with finally breaking through in the fifth year of David Beckham’s tenure in LA. Maybe one championship was enough for the Galaxy’s collections of stars. The grand experiment was a success, and the competitive fire, it seemed, was gone.
Talent wins out, even in a League where the margin between the best teams and worst teams is inexorably smaller than in most of the world’s major soccer competitions. LA still had the most talent, from David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and 2011 signee Robbie Keane through to less-heralded names like Juninho, Mike Magee, and AJ De La Garza.
Omar Gonzalez returned in July from a knee injury, giving LA the boost the team needed to climb the standings and reestablish itself as an MLS Cup contender. Whatever criticism Bruce Arena deserves for the Galaxy’s poor start with a team too talented to be so bad, he’s owed equal amounts of praise for digging LA out of the hole to the to the cusp of another championship.
The Galaxy take on a familiar foe as they play to become the first repeat MLS Cup winner since their opponent in this year’s final, the Houston Dynamo, did it in 2006 and 2007.
Despite Houston’s impressive run of success during the tenure of Dom Kinnear (current bearer of the title “Best Coach At This MLS Thing) it’s the Galaxy that carries the burden of expectations. Somehow, Kinnear and the Dynamo make final after final while a watching soccer public questions their talent. Make no mistake, Kinnear’s team isn’t an underdog.
There are very compelling reasons why the Galaxy will once again dispatch of the Dynamo and lift the Anschutz trophy on home soil. Robbie Keane, who played a crucial role in last year’s win, is in even better form this year. With a full season of working together under their belts, Landon Donovan and Keane are the League’s most potent one-two combination of attacking players. Even a strong Houston defense anchored by Bobby Boswell and Jermaine Taylor will struggle to contain the duo. While LA is not overly potent from the wings - outside of David Beckham’s dozen or so crosses a game - Mike Magee is adept at showing up in the box at the right time. LA’s counter-attack is a monster, and will give the Dynamo fits any time they turn the ball over with too many men committed up field.
Defensively, LA has (to undersell it just a bit) maintained since AJ DeLaGarza went out with injury in early October. Into his place stepped rookie Tommy Meyer, a player with little experience but all of the physical tools necessary to do the job next Omar Gonzalez. It hasn’t always been the easiest road, but through the playoffs Meyer has been more than adequate.
Against Seattle in the Western Conference final, Gonzalez and Meyer teamed up hold down the Sounders’ dynamic forwards. The round before that, they kept the League’s best offense off the board save for an unlucky deflection on a free kick taken by defender Victor Bernardez.
Gonzalez had a bad moment against the very strong and exceptionally quick Eddie Johnson up in Seattle, but as a whole, the LA defense has handled their responsibilities with aplomb. Maybe it’s no great praise to say that the Galaxy shut down Fredy Montero in the playoffs, since everyone shuts down Fredy Montero in the playoffs, but the Colombian star was a non-factor as the Galaxy bullied their way to another MLS Cup final appearance. Considering the competition through the Western Conference playoffs, the Galaxy has every reason to think the defense will be just as strong against a hit-or-miss Houston attack.
Oscar Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis drive the Dynamo in a formation that typically calls for a lone center forward. Will Bruin has been good in that position, holding up play and scoring goals. The Galaxy defender tasked with marking him won’t find the job easy. Still, if the LA defense can limit Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis - difficult, but not impossible tasks - Bruin’s effectiveness will be minimal.
The Galaxy is at home. They’ve been through this drill before. While the Houston team that will show up at the Home Depot Center on December 1st is not the same team that LA beat to win the title last season, the Galaxy will still be prohibitive favorites to repeat. They should have more of the ball. If Landon Donovan is healthy enough to play after sitting out the second leg of the conference finals in Seattle, the attack will be more dangerous than anything the Dynamo have faced so far this postseason.
The title, and the opportunity to knock Houston off the perch as the last back-to-back MLS Cup winners, is there for the taking.
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