The 2010 MLS Cup had a winning formula to it. Last year’s final match-up was between Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. Both were hard working teams that had no high-profile Designated Players on their squads. Both teams were outside the top three teams in MLS, Dallas finished fourth and Colorado was seventh. And they managed to peak come playoff time.
WATCH SUNDAY'S 2011 MLS CUP LIVE ON TSN2 AT 6 P.M. PT
This year’s MLS Cup sees two teams that have taken different routes to reach the final. You have the high-profile LA Galaxy and the workmanlike squad of Houston Dynamo.
At the midpoint of the 2011 MLS season, even some of their home fans thought that the playoffs were beyond the Dynamo. Houston had won only three out of their first 14 games and confidence in the side was low.
The season really turned around for them on September 10 when they lost to Sporting Kansas City (the same team they beat in the Eastern Conference final) by a score of 3-0. It was then that Dynamo head coach Domenic Kinnear decided to re-shuffle his line-up by moving 2009 MLS Best XI defender Geoff Cameron from a central midfield role and returned him to the centre of defence.
Houston then went on a nine-game winning streak, ending with a 2-0 shutout of Sporting KC in the Eastern Conference final at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. The 2-0 win was the first time Kansas City had been shut out at home in league play since its home opener on June 9.
With their defence playing at such a high level, confidence began to spread throughout the team. It has really showed in the playoffs, as the Dynamo have scored five goals and allowed just one goal in three postseason games so far.
The Dynamo are playing in their third MLS Cup in six years, and will be looking for their stingy defence to propel them to their third MLS Cup title. They will not be intimidated by playing the final in the home of the Galaxy after defeating Kansas City in front of a rowdy, sold-out crowd.
As for LA, they had another route to the league’s showpiece game. The Galaxy knew going into this season that they would host the final at The Home Depot Center in Carson, California. This put more pressure on the club to make sure they made it to the big game on Sunday night. Add David Beckham, who might be playing his last season for the Galaxy and still having lingering thoughts of the 2009 MLS Cup when they lost on penalties to Real Salt Lake in Seattle.
The Galaxy added another key component to the mix by signing Robbie Keane midway through this MLS season, hoping this would be the final piece to their puzzle. LA had Beckham, Keane, and Landon Donovan spearheading their goal to finish first overall during the regular season, which gave them the best chance to reach the final and win the cup…or so they thought…
To their credit, they finished first overall and got a bye in the first round of the playoffs. But the teams they had to face this postseason gave them the most difficult task of reaching their goal. They did overcome New York Red Bulls and Thierry Henry by an aggregate score of 3-1 in a two-leg series. They then had to take on a very good Real Salt Lake team at home, in which they prevailed by another 3-1 scoreline. Finishing first did not give them the easier route to the final, but it did give them the advantage when it was needed. The Galaxy managed to beat the Red Bulls in the second leg at home after going down 1-0 early in the game. And it was made a much easier proposition playing Real Salt Lake at home, rather than having to play at Rio Tinto Stadium, where RSL were almost unbeatable at their Sandy, Utah, home.
One thing in common is the two head coaches. Bruce Arena (LA) and Dominic Kinnear (Houston) have both won the MLS Cup twice as coaches and they bring a winning attitude to their teams. They have taken different paths to get to Sunday night’s match, and there is no doubt who the underdog is and who the favourite will be in the final.
Houston will have to use their stingy defence to try and frustrate this talented Galaxy team, hoping to silence a sell-out crowd at The Home Depot Center. Usually neutral soccer fans will support the underdog in a final, hoping the little team beats the big team. But for me, it’s hard to root against the Galaxy. They have shown they are the best team during the MLS regular season by finishing first overall, and they beat two of the best teams in New York and Salt Lake in the postseason.
How cruel would it be for the Galaxy to fall at the final hurdle at home after the season they have had…