LA Galaxy spent all night on Sunday looking to land a decisive blow en route to a historic Major League Soccer championship, and finally got the moment from all three heavy hitters on The Home Depot Center marquee.
Landon Donovan finished off a gorgeous build-up through fellow Designated Players David Beckham and Robbie Keane in the 72nd minute, pushing the Galaxy to a 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo in MLS Cup 2011 and gift-wrapping the third league championship in franchise history.
The moment, which played out in front of 30,281 fans that braved uncharacteristically wet and cool conditions in Southern California, also punctuated one of the best seasons for any team in league history. The Galaxy won the MLS Supporters’ Shield during the regular season and steadily drove their way through the postseason, capped by an impressively solid performance against a Dynamo team that struggled to keep pace all night.
The win also gave head coach Bruce Arena the third MLS title of his storied coaching career, and likely exorcised any demons from the last time the club was in the title game. That showing ended in a loss to Real Salt Lake in penalty kicks in 2009, a moment the club harped on all week as they carried the weight of heavy favourites into Sunday night.
But this one played out vastly different than the 2009 loss, and was summed up on the game-winning goal. The play began with a nifty flick header from Beckham to a surging Keane, who drifted to the middle of the field roughly 25 yards out and patiently waited for the chance to strike.
Then came the onrushing Donovan, who threaded his way back the Houston backline and latched onto pitch-perfect Keane pass before coolly slotting a right-footed shot just past Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall and into the back of the net.
It was an MLS-record 20th career postseason goal for the Galaxy captain, who was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player, and his fourth all-time in the MLS Cup. He celebrated in a fashion familiar to fans even casually aware of his game-winner for the United States against Algeria in last summer’s FIFA World Cup: a sprint to the corner flag, a slide on the wet grass, a moment in history.
While it was a cathartic and celebratory scene for the Galaxy, it was an equally tough pill to swallow for the Dynamo, who were back in the MLS Cup the first time since winning back-to-back Cups in 2006 and 2007. But Houston, who played without playmaker and MVP finalist Brad Davis (quad strain), never managed to create the chances they did during Eastern Conference playoff wins over Philadelphia Union or Sporting Kansas City, and settled for a rope-a-dope approach that never paid off.
The loss was also the first in MLS Cup history for Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear, who carried four MLS titles into the game as a head coach and an assistant.
The Galaxy, meanwhile, got the entire bang for their buck on a night when it mattered.
Keane was active all night and clearly healthy, despite his recent UEFA European Championship qualifying matches for the Republic of Ireland. Donovan was pesky and opportunistic, and Beckham played the role of the Galaxy’s point guard with ease. Time and time again, the Galaxy offence ran though Beckham, who played a withdrawn role in the midfield and coolly drifted passes over the top or into space for the Galaxy front line.
If the game was indeed Beckham’s last in MLS, it was a fitting end to an era. He was dangerous all night with the ball on his foot, but certainly not invincible. After threading pass after pass into danger, he came up lame in the minutes after Donovan’s goal, clearly favoring a nagging back injury that has plagued him much of the season and could decide if he comes back next year.
He was all smiles and embraced Donovan in a euphoric hug after his first MLS Cup win, however, leaving those to wonder into the offseason if he’ll be back for another shot or walk away a champion.
Despite Beckham’s play, however, the chances went wanting for more than an hour before Donovan’s game-winner. LA thought they’d finally cracked the code in the 57th minute, when Beckham found Keane in the open behind the Houston backline. But even when Keane somehow squeezed a shot through Hall’s legs and into the back of the net, there was a problem: The Irish striker was offside before he even got the shot off, and the goal was disallowed.
Keane had a solid chance in the 49th minute as well, but he trickled a shot wide of the far post after running onto a loose ball that caromed off Houston midfielder Corey Ashe’s head and into space behind the Dynamo defence.
The first half played out much as the hearty home crowd would have hoped, with the Galaxy controlling the tempo and creating the most offensive chances. The best early opportunity came in the 12th minute, when wide open striker Adam Cristman zeroed in on a Beckham corner kick in the box. But Cristman – who started in place of injured regular Chad Barrett – thumped his header wide of the right post.
Cristman was at it again in the 27th minute, after Donovan and Beckham did the dirty work to set up a golden chance at the back post. Donovan cut inside from the right flank against Houston defender Jermaine Taylor and laid off a pass to Beckham, who drifted another dangerous cross into the box. Cristman was there, but again skied the header off the mark before smacking into Hall in front of the goal.
Galaxy postseason hero Mike Magee had his chance before the break, too, but missed the moment. After Keane picked his way through the Houston defence near the top of the box in the 45th minute, he laid a pass off to a streaking Magee, who rocketed a one-time shot into the stands. Magee, who scored in each game this postseason leading into the final, could only tug at his hair and lament the missed opportunity, punctuating a frustrating first half of missed chances for LA.
The Dynamo, meanwhile, seemed doomed to sit back and take the punches. They managed just one shot on goal on the night, but Danny Cruz’s left-footed shot from distance in the 44th minute was easily swallowed up by Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
And they certainly took their lumps as well, most notably when defender Geoff Cameron went down in a heap in the 31st minute after his right leg got caught under Cristman on a tackle in the Dynamo box. Cameron was clearly favoring the injury the rest of the night, and it was a moment scary enough to prompt reserve defenders Eddie Robinson and Hunter Freeman to slowly begin warming up for pinch-hit duty.
But even an entirely healthy Cameron might not have saved the Dynamo on this night. It was largely a one-sided affair from the opening kick, an emphatic final note on a remarkable season and a moment the Galaxy savoured on their home pitch and, most importantly, on their terms.
72' - LA - Landon Donovan (Robbie Keane, David Beckham)
13' - HOU - Bobby Boswell (caution; Handball)
40' - LA - Adam Cristman (caution; Reckless Tackle)
74' - HOU - Andre Hainault (caution; Reckless Foul)
82' - LA - David Beckham (caution; Tactical Foul)
90+4' - LA - Landon Donovan (caution; Delaying a Restart)
Tally Hall, Andre Hainault, Bobby Boswell, Geoff Cameron, Jermaine Taylor, Danny Cruz (Colin Clark 78'), Luiz Camargo, Adam Moffat, Corey Ashe (Je-Vaughn Watson 84'), Brian Ching, Calen Carr (Carlo Costly 66')
Subs Not Used: Will Bruin, Hunter Freeman, Eddie Robinson, Tyler Deric
Josh Saunders, Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant, Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Juninho, Mike Magee, Adam Cristman (Chris Birchall 57'), Robbie Keane
Subs Not Used: Gregg Berhalter, Paolo Cardozo, Frankie Hejduk, Jovan Kirovski, Michael Stephens, Donovan Ricketts
Referee: Ricardo Salazar
Referee's Assistants: Craig Lowry; Peter Manikowski
4th Official: Hilario Grajeda
Time of Game: 1:52
Weather: Rain and 53 degrees