Los Angeles vs. New England
Sunday, December 7, 2014
StubHub Center, 3 pm EST
After 323 regular season matches and more than a month of thrilling playoff action, the 2014 MLS Cup will be awarded for the nineteenth time on Sunday, as Los Angeles and New England meet in the final.
Much has changed over the near-two decades that the league has been in existence. Dynasties have risen and fallen, clubs have joined and disbanded, but the one constant from that inaugural season of 1996 to the present is the LA Galaxy.
As Superclub – or Supervillian, depending on one's point of view – the Galaxy are the without doubt the most successful team in MLS. Tied with DC United for winningest club with four cups, LA has reached the final for an astounding ninth time – slightly less than half of the finals ever played have featured the Galaxy - and this year's edition will be their third such chance at the trophy in the last four years. They have won the previous two, in 2011 and 2012.
Their opponents on Sunday are no strangers to the big occasion themselves, making their fifth-appearance in the final – the second most in the league, though it will be their first in seven years. New England first graced the year-end finale back in 2002 and then embarked on a run of three-straight finals appearances between 2005 and 2007. Despite achieving such lofty heights, New England has yet to win an MLS Cup, losing more finals (four), than all but three clubs have earned the right to even contend.
In fact, Los Angeles and New England have played for two previous finals, meeting in 2002 and 2005, with LA winning both encounters by 1-0 scorelines, scoring in extra-time on both occasions - Carlos Ruiz doing the damage in '02 and Guillermo Ramirez in '05.
Having survived a long season, both clubs have earned their place in the final.
New England surged to the top of the tables early with an early five-game winning streak, only to crash back down to earth with an eight-game losing run. They managed to right that ship midsummer, thanks in part to the scintillating form of Lee Nguyen and the acquisition of Jermaine Jones via a blind-draw, to finish second in the East.
They handled the Conference Semifinals with ease, ending their series against the Crew in the first match with a 2-4 result in Columbus, seeing out the tie 7-3 on aggregate back home. The Conference Finals against New York were a tad more tense, eking out a 1-2 win away in the first leg – a thunderous encounter and probably the match of the season – before a 2-2 draw back home saw them into the final on a 4-3 aggregate scoreline; a Charlie Davies header proving the difference.
LA started slowly with an awkward schedule that included Champions League commitments, random byeweeks, double-headers with Salt Lake and Vancouver, and a spate of away fixtures – they won just two of their first eight matches, before finding their stride mid-May and mid-August, embarking on eight and ten game unbeaten runs to surge towards the top of the West. A winless run through the final three matches of the season, including a home and away series with Seattle, saw them fall just short of the Sounders for the Supporters Shield, but comfortable into second in the league and conference.
In contrast to New England, LA survived their first playoff match, lucky to depart Salt Lake with a scoreless draw, thanks largely to the heroics of Jaime Penedo, before dismantling their opponents back home with a 5-0 hammering that saw them progress to the Conference Finals, where a stiffer test awaited. Converging paths with Seattle once more, LA took the opener 1-0 at home and then got the much needed away goal in the second leg after falling behind by two quick strikes at the end of the first half. Juninho's strike would be all they needed, taking the series on away goals with the aggregate score level at 2-2.
Aside from those historic meetings in past cup finals, LA and New England have not met much in league play of late, ever since the league switched to an unbalanced conference schedule, meeting just once per season over the last three years.
New England took the 2012 result, winning 1-3 in LA on goals from Kelyn Rowe and Chris Tierney inside the first thirteen minutes. Sair Sene would add the third before Robbie Keane found some late consolation. A result that the Revolution would love to repeat come Sunday.
The two subsequent meetings are unlikely to be indicative of what can be expected in the final – outliers in the extreme. The Revolution abused the Galaxy in 2013, winning 5-0 at home. LA bossed possession, but Sene again struck, and the goals rained in in the final twenty minutes with Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, Chad Barrett, and Rowe finding the back of the net in quick succession.
Los Angeles would have their revenge this season however, returning the five-spot with a 5-1 home win back in July. Keane grabbed the first of his brace in the tenth minute and Gyasi Zardes the first of his in the eigtheenth. Nguyen would steal one back before half-time from the penalty spot, but another from Zardes three minutes after the restart sealed the night; late strikes from Stefan Ishizaki and Keane completing his brace only severed to further humble the visitors.
A midweek cross-continent match with peculiar diamond midfield from New England, featuring centre-back AJ Soares at the base, a red card to the misplaced defender, and another to Dan Gargan all but rendered any possible lessons from that match essentially useless.
What is clear amongst the fog, is that both these teams are capable of winning through the sheer strength of their attacks. LA led the league in goals through the regular season with 69, while New England has racked up eleven goals in four playoff matches – no small feat.
As such, the first goal could prove decisive, allowing whoever scores it to sit back, absorbing pressure and looking to hit with a devastating counter, as their opponent is forced out of their shell in search of an equalizer – expect a cagey opening.
Defensively the advantage would look to tilt in LA's favour, they allowed nine fewer goals in the regular season and rode a three-game clean-sheet streak through the playoffs, that is until Seattle grabbed two in a six-minute spell in the second leg. While they may concede, New England does not lose – they are unbeaten in four playoff matches and ended the season on a five-game unbeaten run.
Overall they have just one loss in their last sixteen matches, which is impressive; almost as impressive as the fact that LA has not lost at home since opening day against Salt Lake, a run of sixteen league and two playoff matches, winning both home matches in the post-season.
When it comes to finals, experience is vital, and in that category, LA, led by MLS Godfather Bruce Arena, the most successful coach in league history, has the edge over his opponent Jay Heaps, who left the broadcast booth to manage the side he played for just three seasons ago.
Same goes for on the pitch, where the likes of Landon Donovan, Keane, and Omar Gonzalez have seen and done it all. New England has their fair share of veterans: Jose Goncalves was dominant last-season, though has struggled at times this year, Nguyen has been around the block, while Jones brings the leadership from years of play at the highest level to a youthful side.
Both sides have a smattering of young talents – Zardes in LA and Rowe, Andrew Farrell, Scott Caldwell, and Fagundez – as well several battle-tested contributors – Juninho, Marcelo Sarvas, Ishizaki, and Robbie Rogers in LA; Teal Bunbury, Chris Tierney, Soares, Kevin Alston, and Davies in New England – and solid, if at times unspectacular, goalkeepers in Jaime Penedo and Bobby Shuttleworth.
Penedo can run hot and cold, standing on his head in Salt Lake only to get beat by a deflected shot that bobbled through his hands in Seattle, while Shuttleworth has developed nicely into his starter's role, but is still prone to the odd troublesome passage.
Such matches can end in two ways, either the star players cancel each other out, leaving space for some unheralded name to pop up and be the difference maker, or one side's excellence rules the day. And both sides have plenty of spirit pushing them forward.
The Revolution have Nguyen entering on the back-end of a season that has shot him into the MVP conversation and back into the US National Team picture with eighteen goals and five assists. They also have Jones, whose veteran presence and vociferous tenacity has made New England an altogether more difficult opponent since arriving back in August. Add to that a resurgent Davies, whose four playoff goals have him tied with Bradley Wright-Phillips for the most in the post-season, while reminding some of the form he exhibited prior to that devastating car accident that nearly ended his career and life some short five years ago.
The Galaxy meanwhile have fate in their corner, as Donovan, undoubtedly the most celebrated player to ever-grace MLS pitches, will be playing the final match of his storied career – a storybook ending would see him hoist the trophy once more on his home turf. Keane may have been anonymous the past few weeks – appearing to be carrying a knock of some sort – but with nineteen goals and fourteen assists in the regular season, he took the MVP award and is no stranger to stepping up on the big occasion. While Gonzalez has become one of the league's premier defenders, excelling in the air, which makes it unlikely that New England will find the same Plan B joy with crosses from the wings, as they did in the second leg against New York, should their primary route through the middle be clogged.
Both sides enter with some minor injury concerns. Defender AJ DeLaGarza missed out on the LA match in Seattle, while centre-back Leonardo has been troubled by a hamstring. New England left Rowe out of the starting lineup for their second leg with New York after he suffered a heavy tackle from Richard Eckersley.
For viewers in Toronto, there is a little bit of TFC flavour to the match, as much-loved outside-back/artist/Jamaican gangster, Dan 'Release the' Gargan is a candidate to start for the Galaxy, should one of DeLaGarza or Leonardo not be able to go; likely filling in the right-back position as he did in Seattle and for large stretches of the season. Gargan, who was signed late in the preseason as a back-up, has had a wonderful resurgence with the Galaxy, starting 27 matches, making 29 appearances, and racking up five assists at the tender age of 33, having spent much of 2013 on the fringes of the San Jose squad. However distasteful the idea of LA winning again may be, the fact that Gargan would get his hands on the trophy is a smoothing salve.
With full admittance that a decision – a penalty kick or a red card – could fully swing the tide, this looks like LA's game to win. Home field advantage, the Landon Donovan fabled-ending, experience, and history all weigh in their favour; if so, New England will have to suffer their cup final runners-up jinx for yet another season. But watch out for them next year.
If there is a goal in the first twenty minutes, it could be the first of many, as both sides have plenty of firepower, but the longer the game remains scoreless the more likely a late or extra-time winner, such as in 2002 or 2005, becomes.
Enjoy the match!