While the 2012 MLS Cup offers a rematch of last year’s final won by Los Angeles, this year’s installment has a lot more story lines that just a rematch. Here's a look at 10 things to consider in no particular order of importance as all can weigh heavily on the game.
1. Final game for David Beckham
How emotional will this game be for Beckham, his teammates and Galaxy fans? Will he go out with a second straight championship? Somewhat lost in this story is the fact that it might also be Landon Donovan's last Galaxy match as well. If both Becks and Donovan leave, this will be a different looking side in 2013.
Since it's a two week break between the semifinals and the final, any momentum from the last series is gone. The extra week will give some key injured players more time to heal. In this case we're talking more about Los Angeles’ Donovan and Houston's Ricardo Clark.
These are two of the very best who thrive in the post season. Bruce Arena has now won three MLS Cups while Houston's Dominic Kinnear has won two. The pressure of the big game doesn't seem to faze them. Both had good seasons behind their bench – especially when one factors in the injuries that Los Angeles had. Houston's has the loss of defender Geoff Cameron in season, in addition to starting out on the road this year while awaiting the completion of their new downtown stadium, BBVA Compass Stadium.
4. Impact players
This is one area where Los Angeles does have an advantage over the Dynamo. In Beckham, Donovan, and Robbie Keane (16 goals) these are game breakers as designated players. On the Dynamo side you have Brad Davis (12 assists) and Boniek Garcia as potential game breakers. Will Bruin had a great year with 12 goals, but most observers wouldn't call him a game breaker type of player. Even if you do, the “Los Angeles Three” are clearly better.
Tally Hall and Josh Saunders don't get the credit they deserve but they surely are among the better goalkeepers in the league. Hall had the fifth best goals against average in the league at 1.19 while collecting 12 shutouts. He has now helped to get his team to the last two MLS Cups. Saunders numbers are deceiving, with a goals against average of 1.33. Remember for most of the season he was without the clubs best defender in Omar Gonzalez, plus Josh was sidelined earlier this year (enrolled in MLS substance abuse program) and missed several games. He's a winner, and the Galaxy’s second half resurgence was due in large part to his return to form.
6. Home field advantage
This should be more of an advantage for Los Angeles than it was a year ago when the Home Depot Center hosted the event. In 2011, they had won the bid and everyone knew where the final would be. In 2012, under the new playoff system that rewards the remaining team with the better record, Los Angeles gets the home game.
One would think that with the short time turnaround, that more Galaxy fans will have access to tickets than those who found out about the MLS Cup venue two weeks ago. I know they lost six games at home this year but many of those came early in the season when the team struggled. While it should feel more like a Galaxy home game, than a neutral venue, I do expect to see a significant number of Dynamo fans easy to spot in orange.
7. Throw out the stats
Forget about all of the numbers during the regular season, especially when it comes to Los Angeles. They are a different team with Omar Gonzalez in the lineup. Recall that this was a last place team in the Western Conference early in the season. At that point they were not just losing games but also leaking goals.
For Houston, they became a different team as well with the great addition of Boniek Garcia. He made them a more dynamic and versatile team on offense; in addition taking some of the pressure off of Brad Davis, I feel made Davis even more effective.
8. Memories of 2012
Houston takes nothing out of their only meeting this year against Los Angeles a 2-1 win. That game was in late May in Houston and both clubs were missing key players. Los Angeles was without Donovan, Keane, Saunders and Gonzalez. That loss by LA was their third straight in MLS, and left them winless in seven at the time. Neither team looks like the team they were in May, as both are performing at a much higher level.
9. Unsung Players
Besides the previously mentioned designated players, who else can make a difference in the game? Two who come to mind from the Galaxy are Mike Magee and Juninho. Magee has been very good in the playoffs this year, just like he was a year ago. While a lot of attention is placed on the “Big Three,” this enables Magee to find the open spaces, where his finishing has been lethal. Juninho is a midfield battler who also gives you a long range shooting threat, and the knack for getting the timely goal.
For Houston, when I think of unsung players who can make a difference, I think about left back Corey Ashe and his blazing speed, plus midfielders Ricardo Clark and Adam Moffat, if healthy.
10. Revenge factor
If Houston wins, no doubt their players and coaching staff will be asked if the win was sweeter since they lost to the Galaxy one year ago. In the heat of the moment, those being interviewed may say yes, but I’m not buying it.
The realistic goal of many MLS teams is to make the playoffs.
The better teams have higher aspirations. I doubt that Bruce Arena’s goal in the preseason was to just make it to the playoffs. He wanted to repeat as champion. With Dominic Kinnear’s team getting to last year’s final, I would think his goal for 2012 was also on the bigger prize. If you asked the Houston players who would they have preferred to play in MLS Cup, I don’t think they would have had a preference. In the end, you want to get to MLS Cup, regardless of the opponent. So, I’m dismissing the revenge factor, but I know it will be brought up if Houston wins.
We have two very good teams meeting on Saturday, and some great story lines. If you are a Galaxy or Dynamo fan, it’s obvious who you are rooting for. If you’re a soccer fan with no attachment to either club, all you want to see is a very good game. I’m looking for a game on Saturday that will live up to the hype and the story lines.