Talking tactics: Looking at how LA and Houston match up in Sunday's MLS Cup final

Carl Valentine breaks down MLS Cup

Looking at the two teams in this year’s MLS Cup final, it is clear that Houston Dynamo is a considerable underdog, as this game is at the home of their opponents in LA Galaxy.


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The Galaxy might be feeling the pressure of being the home favourites, with big name players David Beckham, Landon Donavan, and Robbie Keane in Bruce Arena’s squad. Sunday is a great opportunity for LA to win the big game in their home stadium and give a big boost to Major League Soccer. So how is this game to going to play out?

In the regular season, the Dynamo only won two games on the road, scoring only 13 goals in 17 away matches and conceding 21 (not good reading). But Houston have won both away matches in the postseason, scoring four goals and only conceding one. They have a four-game road winning streak, which is their first in team history, and that reads a lot better.

If they are going to beat the Galaxy in The Home Depot Center, Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall will need to have a monster game. He comes into the match in good form, but he will have to contend with shots from near and far, as well as dangerous free kicks from Beckham.

There will be a couple of key decisions to be made by Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear. They have lost their best playmaker in Brad Davis, who had a Most Valuable Player season and will be sorely missed. Centre back Geoff Cameron was used in midfield early in the season when Houston was having a bad spell, and he would make up for the loss of Davis with the quality he could add in that area of the pitch. The problem with that is when he returned to the Dynamo backline, it coincided with Houston turning their season around and being a lot tougher defensively. His partnership with Bobby Boswell in the centre of Houston’s defence will be key to trying to shut down the LA attack.

Scottish midfielder Adam Moffat and Brazilian import Luiz Camargo have complimented each other. Moffat is the main ball winner and adds much-needed bite, while Camargo has that eye for a killer pass that can unlock the tightest of defences.

Up front, they will be relying heavily on veteran forward and Dynamo captain Brian Ching, who is the team’s all-time leading scorer. He has played and won an MLS Cup and will be relied on to be the first line of defence for the Dynamo, as well as being a scoring threat. He is a solid two-way player, who will track back and make important tackles.

Probable formation for Houston: 4-4-1-1

For the Dynamo to win, they will have to rely on their recently stingy defence and try to catch the Galaxy on the counter-attack. They will have to be careful that they do not drop too deep, and then give too much room to Beckham, as he can dictate the pace of the game for LA. They will be hoping to capitalize on set plays, which is a part of their game they have been very strong with this season. Off set-pieces, Houston scored 22 goals during the regular season and five goals in the playoffs.

They will miss the service from Davis’ left foot on set plays, but they are comforted by the knowledge that Moffat is a capable deputy. He struck a great free kick for their opening goal in the Eastern Conference final at Sporting Kansas City.

For the Galaxy, the task looks quite simple. They are undefeated at home in the regular season and the playoffs, going into Sunday’s match. In the regular season, LA scored 28 goals and only conceded eight. In the postseason, the Galaxy again impressed at home, scoring five goals and conceding just two. LA finished with the best regular season record and had the fewest goals conceded, with Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena winning MLS Coach of the Year honours for 2011. If the game was played on paper, LA would be raising the MLS Cup.

LA goalkeeper Josh Saunders will probably be the less active of the two keepers, but he will have to command his box on set plays, where Houston have been strong and will see those opportunities as their best chances to score. In defence, the Galaxy boast this year’s MLS Defender of the Year in Omar Gonzalez - who together with Todd Dunivant - made the MLS Best XI team. The pair will make life very difficult for the Houston strike force. The LA defence will also be influential in keeping possession of the ball, as they like to start their attacks from the back.

Midfield could be where this game will be won. Juninho will anchor the Galaxy midfield, which will allow Beckham to roam and spray his passes all over the park. If Beckham is given too much room, that will spell disaster for Houston. Arena will have to make a big decision, as one of his best players in striker Chad Barrett was seriously injured in training last week and will be missed on Sunday. Arena has the option of moving Donovan from the middle of the park to a more advanced role up front. This will suit LA, if they are controlling the play and Beckham is getting room to find Donovan with long-range passes.

For me, the player to watch in this game is Keane, as he is on fire right now. He scored a great goal in the Western Conference final against Real Salt Lake, and he is coming of two impressive performances in the UEFA European Championship playoffs, as Republic of Ireland beat Estonia 5-1 over two legs to reach the finals in Poland and Ukraine next year. He will be walking on air, and he is a player who feeds off confidence. With Keane, you never know where he is going to pop up on the pitch, and he is dangerous when receiving the ball and running at defences, or he can be deadly when he gets the ball in and around the opponents’ box.

Probable formation for LA: 4-4-1-1

For the Galaxy to win, they have to be patient. This Houston team have already won in Philadelphia and Kansas City this postseason, so they know how to win on the road. LA will have to make sure they don’t throw too many players forward and get caught on the counter-attack. LA’s biggest challenge could be Houston’s set plays. They have to organize quickly and attack the ball when those situations present themselves.

This final is made for the Galaxy to complete a memorable 2011 season. They will be playing in front of a sold-out crowd; they come into the game with the best defence in the league; and they have Beckham, Donovan, and Keane - three players who can produce that bit of magic to win a tight game. Put that together with Coach of the Year Arena driving the bus, and it looks like a party in LA will take place on Sunday night.

This could also be Beckham’s last game in MLS, and what a way to go out. I cannot imagine a better sight than Beckham holding up the MLS Cup in front of a home crowd, and I am sure I am not the only one.

Prediction: LA Galaxy 3-1 Houston Dynamo