Know Your Enemies: MLS Cup Final - LA Galaxy vs Houston Dynamo

Bob Levey

Preview of the Cup final. How both teams got here, how they match up and what will be the crucial battles.

It has all come to this.

Three hundred, twenty-three league matches and fourteen playoff games have led here.

The seventeenth season of MLS will be resolved on Saturday afternoon when the Los Angeles Galaxy host the Houston Dynamo in the 2012 MLS Cup.

It is only right that there is a familiar feel about this final - the two met in last year's finale at the same venue, the Home Depot Center in LA - but a year, especially in soccer, can be a long time.

Hard to believe, but both have improved since last they met.

Dynasties? Superclubs? Any way it's termed, this will be a meeting of two of the most successful sides in MLS history.

Before delving into the gritty details, a look at...

How They Got Here

LA

The Galaxy progressed through the Western Conference finals over the Seattle Sounders 4-2 on aggregate.

Despite being the lower seed, LA made use of home-field advantage in the first leg dismantling Seattle 3-0 on the night; in earnest, it could have been more.

Robbie Keane, scoring his third goal in the playoffs, landed the first blow in first half stoppage time, nodding in a deft Landon Donovan chip-pass. Goals at the end of halves tend to be disastrous; this one proved to be just that.

Mike Magee doubled the advantage twenty minutes into the second frame, hitting a first-time shot sweetly from a Sean Franklin cross. It was also his third goal on the post-season.

Not to be outdone, Keane scored his fourth three minutes on, knocking a trickling Christian Wilhelmsson shot over the line - there is no room for modesty come the quest for the cup.

Facing a three-goal deficit in the second leg, Seattle, as they had in 2011 against Salt Lake, fought valiantly to get back into the series.

Goals twelve minutes into either half from Eddie Johnson - latching onto a ball over the top and finishing smartly past Josh Saunders - and Zach Scott - a diving near-post header from the end of a Christian Tiffert corner kick - appeared to make a contest of the final half-hour. But a silly penalty kick, conceded when the arm of Adam Johansson awkwardly blocked a harmless chip from Keane, put a quick end to the rally with twenty minutes remaining.

Keane converted from the spot, his fifth of the playoffs, and though Seattle took the match 2-1 and could feel hard done by, the tie was decided in that first leg.

LA advanced to a record eighth MLS Cup Final; their third in the last four seasons.

Houston

The Dynamo, similarly, made their way past DC United 4-2 on aggregate in the East; again despite being the lower-seeded participant.

DC took the lead in the first leg, in Houston, minutes before the half-hour when Nick DeLeon ran uncontested onto the rebound from a Lionard Pajoy shot. The wayward Colombian's shot ricocheted off the post, having beat Tally Hall, but landed invitingly for the rookie to tuck into the unguarded net.

Undaunted by the deficit and with DC hampered by injuries - Chris Pontius and Marcelo Saragosa were forced off before the stoppage - Andre Hainault controversially leveled the match six minutes into the second half.

The goal - a squared ball from Oscar Boniek Garcia after Brad Davis had astutely taken a quick free-kick - was fine, but it was the absence of a call by the referee at the end of the first forty-five when Hainault appeared to haul down Raphael Augusto who was breaking in clear on goal that supplied the controversy.

DC centre-back, Brandon McDonald, too limped off the field and Houston would go ahead before seventy minutes - good work on the end-line and a low cross by Giles Barnes forced DC keeper, Joe Willis, to push the ball into the feet of Will Bruin, who bundled it over the line - and find the back of the net again in the final ten minutes when Kofi Sarkodie smashed a driven shot across the keeper after a neat one-two with Luiz Camargo.

3-1 would be the final score on the night.

Back in the friendlier confines of RFK Stadium, DC started well, tilting the field in their favour and threatening the Houston goal.

But as so often happens when a team doesn't make the most of their chances, their wastefulness was made to pay.

Just past the thirty minute mark, in one of their first threatening forays up-field, Davis worked down the right-side of the box and dropped a neat cut-back pass into the path of Garcia at the near-post. The Honduran smashed his finish high into the net from close-range past Bill Hamid, who had returned from suspension to the DC goal.

United scratched and clawed, pulling out all the stops, including the return of Dwayne De Rosario from a knee injury suffered while on duty with Canada back in September, but it was not to be.

Branko Boskovic stole one back in the eighty-third, slicing through the Houston defense down the right-side of the box and tucking a tidy finish in at the near-post, but it was not enough.

The 1-1 draw on the night saw the Dynamo through to the MLS Cup for the second straight season and their fourth in seven years.

For further information on each team's progression to the final check out the previews for the Westernand Eastern Conference Finals.

Past Meetings

With the schedule imbalance, the two met only once in the regular season - back on May 26th at Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium.

LA opened the scoring ten minutes in - David Beckham spotted Chad Barrett streaking behind the defense down the right. Barrett sent a low pass into the path of Edson Buddle, who had gotten in front of Bobby Boswell, for a low finish across Hall in goal.

Houston leveled in the most comical of fashions, a Brian Ching shot from a tight angle caromed off the crossbar towards Magee. The rebound was too hot to handle and Magee's attempt to control only saw him touch the ball into his own net.

Hainault would score the winner - a near-post header from a Davis in-swinging corner - fifteen minutes into the second half.

2-1 to Houston.

It was a dark time for the Galaxy, falling to their third straight defeat - winless in seven, while Houston was basking in the glory of the newly-minted ground - undefeated in four.

However, as mentioned, they did meet in last season's edition of the MLS Cup.

Houston, shorn of playmaker and midfield force Davis, were spared embarrassment by Adam Cristman's profligacy in front of goal; he spurned several incredible chances in the first half alone.

Cristman wasn't alone in his wastefulness, Donovan, Keane, and Magee all missed sitters throughout the first seventy minutes.

In the end, LA's quality shone with their triumvirate of designated players combining in the seventy-second minute for the game's lone goal.

Beckham flicked a long ball out of the back into the path of Keane who toyed with Boswell before slipping Donovan in down the right. His chipped finish, squirreled kindly as it bobbled towards goal, turning ever-so-slightly to nestle into the far-corner as a sliding Geoff Cameron could only watch on in agony when the ball crossed the line.

1-0 was enough to see the Galaxy lift their third Anschutz trophy.

Key Battles

Arena vs. Kinnear

Two of the most decorated and successful managers in the history of MLS - for Bruce Arena it will be his sixth MLS Cup appearance; for Dominic Kinnear, his fourth. Bruce has three rings to his credit, Dom has two. Each has won titles back-to-back - Bruce in 1996 and 1997; Dom in 2006 and 2007.

Much as in the last round when Arena dueled with Sigi Schmid, this is about as epic a meeting of the minds as MLS allows.

Neither is much for boasting, preferring to let their side's play on the field do the talking.

Rest assured both teams will be prepared for their opposition.

Beckham vs. Davis

Much as was prophesized when LA met Seattle, on paper, these two teams match up very well. Both can be proactive when necessary, but tend to thrive on making the most out of others mistake, with blazing speed, either of foot - in Houston's case - or of mind - in LA's - though both have enough of the opposite to threaten.

Both use advancing full-backs to provide additional width in attack. Both have sturdy central midfields and back-lines to withstand and nullify sustained attacks.

The is a chance that the two may cancel out the strengths of the other, seeking to keep the result tight and extra time - perhaps even spot kicks - is a valid possibility.

In matches such as these, it is often left to dead-ball service to decide the match; particularly when the mind wanders as the clock ticks down.

On display will be two of the finest set-piece takers the league has to offer. Beckham's ability is well-known and Davis is often referred to as the left-footed Beckham - well, often enough to resonate.

In a final featuring two such well-oiled and fluid attacks, wouldn't it be fitting to instead be decided by a late free kick? If so, one of these two is likely to be providing that service.

Meyer vs. Bruin

A rookie central defender and a young forward: old friends from St. Louis, turned enemies by circumstance.

If there is a weak-spot in the Galaxy armour, it is likely to be the first-year centre-back; though from recent performances, one would be hard pressed to pinpoint it.

Bruin, in his second season, has vastly improved his game, adding a busyness to his impressive finishing from last year, while adding four playoff goals to his season tally of twelve.

More likely than not, Bruin will be the responsibility of Omar Gonzalez, Meyer's defensive partner, but if the two shall meet, it will be quite interesting to see which emerges smiling.

Keane & Donovan vs. Moffat & Boswell

Shutting down the interplay between the LA two-some will be a monumental ask for the Houston defense, especially if Clark is unavailable for the match.

Both of the Dynamo centre-backs - Boswell and Jermaine Taylor, as well as the central midfielders, will be busy tracking runs and breaking up flicks between what many consider to be the two most-intelligent forwards in MLS.

Keane has already contributed five goals in the post-season.

If they can be shutdown, Houston will have earned their chance, if not... well.

Saunders vs. Hall

The last line of defense - in the end, it always falls on the keeper.

Neither Josh Saunders, nor Hall, is what one would consider an elite goalkeeper in this league. Both are serviceable; at times, even exceptional, but both have holes in their game.

Goals decide games and no mistake on the pitch is as treacherous as one by the keeper.

Hopefully it won't come to that; conversely, should either stand on their head - something each is capable of - it could swing the balance in their side's favour.

Points of Order

Houston's Tactical Flexibility

With both coaches generally traditional-minded 4-4-2 practitioners, Kinnear's dabbling with the 4-3-3, often times within matches, adds an interesting angle to the match. That's not to say the Galaxy are not capable of their own flexibility.

Depending on the personnel on the pitch, the flow of the occasion, and who is dominating which part of the pitch, expect some seamless tinkering mid-match.

Injury & Personnel Concerns

Each side has several concerns heading into the match. Calen Carr and Ricardo Clark of Houston are both nursing injury; while AJ DeLaGarza and Marcelo Sarvas of LA may not be ready in time.

Added to those possible exclusions both sides have a variety of decisions to make on the pitch.

Does Wilhelmsson or Buddle start for the Galaxy? Where does Donovan play? Is Beckham in the middle or on the flank?

And for Houston, is Mac Kandji a suitable replacement for an unfit Carr? Can Luiz Camargo or Je-Vaughn Watson fill in the middle of the pitch if called upon? Does the more experienced Hainault get the start in the final, or does the hotshot youngster Sarkodie receive the nod? And what of Giles Barnes?

Farewell David Beckham

Ol' Golden Balls has announced that this will be his final match in MLS.

The Experiment came in stages - some were good and some were bad, but his impact on the visibility of the league, if not the product on the field, was undoubtedly a boon to the growth of the game, both within North America and abroad.

Call it selfish; call it advantageous, his curtain-call will undoubtedly focus more eyes on this match.

Landon's Uncertainty

Sad Landon has been musing on the point of it all after a long career spent in the shriveling-spotlight of American soccer; having said that, his performances have absolutely lit up the pitch during these playoffs.

The understanding, bordering on telepathy, which he shares with Keane is astounding to watch.

Is retirement truly on the horizon? Or is the fire rekindled with victory and an offseason?

Ching at the Death

Though Ching has not featured much this campaign, talk of retirement and a cushy front office job remains on the back-burner.

Lack of playing time, however, is not indicative of a lack of quality; Ching continues to impress with a transition from raw physicality to a subtlety in his ability to create for others, not just with hold up play, but with clever use of space and deft passing.

Robbed of the milestone of scoring the first ever goal at BBVA Compass by some woeful finishing - Davis took that honour with a curling rip from distance - wouldn't it be the perfect end to a fabulous career if the Flying Hawaiian were to knock in a header from a Davis corner or free kick to steal the storybook ending away from the Galaxy.

Click here for extended highlights of the 2011 final, as well as MLSsoccer.com's Matchday 360 feature around the event over at Partially Obstructed View.

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