PBPP: So Much for the Favorite
The LA Galaxy seemed to have it all going for them as they approached the Western Conference final last Sunday, at their home, the Home Depot Center.
They had the league’s overall best record, the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, and perhaps the best trio of players on one MLS team in Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Edson Buddle. They were led by Head Coach Bruce Arena, who had won two MLS Cups, and with 18 playoff wins was only one behind Seattle’s Sigi Schmid as the all-time leader. Arena had gotten this Galaxy team to the MLS Cup final one year ago. This should have been their year.
They were playing FC Dallas, a team they had beaten twice before in regular season play, including the final regular season game, which gave the Galaxy the Supporters' Shield trophy and the accompanying home field advantage for the conference final, if they made it that far.
FC Dallas was expected to put up a good fight. After all, they had star midfielder David Ferreira leading their attack, and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman securing things at the other end of the field. Under 2010 MLS Coach of the Year Schellas Hyndman, FC Dallas had earlier gone unbeaten in 19 straight games. You need some luck to do that, but you also have to be a very good team, and FC Dallas were certainly that. They had lost just four games the entire year, two of those to LA.
Hyndman had told me the day before, "We have to match LA’s intensity and their confidence." They did more than match it. If anything, FC Dallas were more intense and more confident than their opponent, and they brought both up a notch after scoring that first goal. The Galaxy were not the same team once they conceded that first goal to Ferreira. A Los Angeles defense that was among the league’s elite looked less than ordinary versus a small but very quick FC Dallas.
I think that quickness was where FC Dallas were better than LA’s semifinal conference rival Seattle. In the previous two legs vs. the Sounders, Seattle’s true speed was only on the flanks, and LA was able to nullify that. In the case of FC Dallas, their speed and quickness was all over the field, not just on the flanks. The Galaxy couldn’t cope with Marvin Chavez and Brek Shea wide, nor could they deal effectively with the outside backs Jackson and Jair Benítez. Their game plan was to stop David Ferreira. You could make a case that they tried, but the end result was failure. Ferreira was the most effective offensive player in the game.
Up top, like they had done all season, they used one striker, but it was Atiba Harris, not the expected Jeff Cunningham. Harris was the only change in the starting lineup for FC Dallas from the previous week. He gave the team not just speed up top, but a strong work ethic, fighting for every ball and making good supporting runs for his teammates.
Having said all of the above, I had said previously that FC Dallas' hope for an upset rested with their goalkeeper. Hartman played collegiately at Cal State Dominguez Hills and at UCLA, before spending 10 years with the Galaxy and winning two MLS Cups. His last club, Kansas City, could not come to terms with him for 2010, so they set him free. While the Wizards missed the playoffs, their former goalkeeper has his team in the MLS Cup final. Hartman made six saves on Sunday, and some were spectacular. In the first half he was exceptional when the game was scoreless. In fact, he was the reason it was scoreless.
What if Hartman didn’t bring his “A“ game to the HDC? What if LA had scored the first goal? Had either of those scenarios happened, there would have been a different column today.
Instead, we talk about an unlikely final on Sunday. Prior to the start of the season, who would have predicted this matchup for the MLS Cup final? Even just before the playoffs started, who could have foreseen Colorado vs Dallas?
While it’s not the marquee matchup that New York vs. LA would have been, it’s a chance to see a new champion crowned and to see one team rewarded for a hard-fought season. Colorado has only made it to one MLS Cup final, and that was back in 1997 where they lost to DC United. For FC Dallas, they were the only original MLS team never to reach the final ... until now.
Don’t worry about who is the favorite on Sunday. That hasn’t seemed to matter much in this crazy MLS postseason.