Not long after the final whistle sounded in LA Galaxy’s 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo on Sunday night at The Home Depot Center, TV cameras beamed out an image league execs have been dreaming about since 2007, the year David Beckham signed with the league. There was the global icon at midfield, amidst a blizzard of confetti, hoisting the MLS Cup trophy.
It was an indelible moment, to be sure, but there were plenty of other striking images emanating out of the HDC in the aftermath of MLS Cup 2011.
There was Landon Donovan, who scored the game’s only goal, dropping to his knees in sheer exultation. There were Donovan and Beckham locked in an embrace that said more about what this championship meant to both men than words ever could.
Then there was a personal favourite: the normally stoic LA coach Bruce Arena grinning madly and wrapping up Galaxy owner (and MLS trophy namesake) Phil Anschutz in a bear hug during the trophy presentation.
Think of it: Bruce Arena not simply smiling and enjoying the moment of his record third MLS championship, but Bruce Arena cutting loose. It was as if George Washington’s stone-carved features on Mount Rushmore had suddenly cracked a grin.
The comparison is apt because the Galaxy had just completed a season that put the club on the Mount Rushmore of MLS franchises. They won the MLS Supporters’ Shield as the team with the best regular-season record (19W-5L-10D), they advanced to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, they produced 18 shutouts, and they won the MLS Cup final.
The Galaxy overcame injuries and international absences, along with the enormous pressure not just to reach the title game at their home stadium but to win it in the final year of Beckham’s five-year contract with the league.
The 36-year-old midfielder has not announced his plans for next season, but whether he returns or not, this game, which he played with an injured hamstring, cements him as a winner in MLS.
Sunday’s result was the 12th 1-0 win of the season for LA, so the general shape of the game was familiar to the Galaxy. But the specifics were a little nervier than they would have liked.
LA created numerous chances in the first half, including three golden ones for Adam Cristman, who was filling in for the injured Chad Barrett. In the 12th minute, the big striker missed the target on a free header from a Beckham corner kick. In the 27th, he failed to get another header on frame after Beckham’s cross found him at the far post.
Cristman capped his half of futility one minute later, slipping on the wet turf and shooting weakly after being sent into the box by Robbie Keane.
Mike Magee also missed a good chance before the break, ballooning his angled shot from 10 yards after another quality pass from Keane.
While Houston were happy to make it to the break scoreless, LA were left to wonder if all of their missed chances would come back to haunt them.
They could take heart in the fact that all three of their Designated Players were percolating. Donovan was combining with right back Sean Franklin to scorch Houston’s left side, exploiting the absence of injured Dynamo winger Brad Davis.
Keane, despite having played twice for Republic of Ireland during the international break, looked lively and was at the centre of almost every LA move forward.
And Beckham was his usual tireless, skillful self on offence and defence.
Sure enough, the game turned on a play orchestrated by all three. In the 72nd minute, Beckham flicked a header out of midfield toward Keane. The Ireland captain won the ball, drove inside on the Houston defence and sent a perfectly weighted ball into Donovan’s path, as LD made a knifing run into the box.
Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall charged, but Donovan flicked a shot with the outside of his right foot. Hall got a hand on the ball, but could not prevent it from finding the far side-netting for Donovan’s record 20th career playoff goal.
The strike stood up, and Donovan was named Most Valuable Player of the match. It was his second such individual trophy and the fourth time he’s been a member of an MLS Cup-winning side.
The Galaxy also became the first team to win an MLS crown with Designated Players since the rule was instituted in 2007.
Dynamo fans, who made an impressive, orange-clad showing at the HDC on Sunday night, can be proud of their team and the fact that they kept this game well within striking distance for 70-plus minutes.
Houston clearly missed Davis, a league MVP finalist and the team leader in assists (16). They were also hindered by a 31st-minute injury to defender Geoff Cameron, who strained his MCL in an awkward challenge with Cristman.
Cameron stuck it out, but the injury definitely limited him and affected the game. Still, the Dynamo had a fine season and a terrific stretch run, going unbeaten in their last nine before Sunday’s loss and reaching their third MLS Cup final in six years. Assuming they get everyone back healthy, Houston will be a favourite in the Eastern Conference next season.
Speaking of next season, before the game, the league announced several changes for the 2012 campaign, when Montreal Impact will join the league and push the number of franchises to 19.
There will be 10 clubs in the Eastern Conference next year and nine in the Western Conference. Teams will play an unbalanced, conference-based schedule, meaning the majority of their matches will be against conference opponents. They’ll meet each team from the opposite conference just once.
The playoff format will undergo a change as well. The 2012 MLS Cup will not take place at a predetermined neutral site, but at the home of the finalist with the higher regular-season point total.
There will still be 10 playoff teams, but the wild-card format has been discarded. Next year, the top-five teams in each conference will qualify for the postseason, with the No. 4 team hosting the No. 5 team in each conference in a single-elimination game for the right to face the conference’s top seed in the Conference Semifinals.
Finally, the Conference Finals will be two-leg series, mirroring the Conference Semis.
But however the new campaign shapes up, this season — with its electrifying additions in Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, its historic attendance numbers and thrilling playoff ride — will be a tough act to follow.
There may be debate about exactly where the 2011 champions rank among the all-time greats, but there’s no doubt about the season in general: it was the best in the 16-year history of the league.