PREVIEW: 2011 MLS Cup tonight in Carson, CA kicks off at 6pm

The Galaxy take on Dynamo to decide 2011 champion

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THE MATCHUP

MLS Cup 2011 will match two of the most successful clubs in Major League Soccer history when the LA Galaxy take on the Houston Dynamo. The Galaxy are competing in the MLS Cup Final for a record seventh time, their last appearance in 2009. The Dynamo are playing in MLS Cup for the third time in their six-year history, becoming just the second club to win back-to-back titles in 2006 and ’07.

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The teams met twice during the regular season. In the first meeting, May 25 at The Home Depot Center, a Landon Donovan penalty kick in first-half stoppage time was the game’s only goal. The teams then met in the regular season finale, Oct. 23 at Robertson Stadium. The Dynamo ran out 3-1 winners behind goals from Adam Moffat, Bobby Boswell and Carlo Costly in a vitally important game for their playoff future; the Galaxy’s lone goal came from debutant Jack McBean.

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The teams have met once in the MLS Cup Playoffs, with a trip to MLS Cup 2009 on the line. In a bizarre Western Conference Championship at The Home Depot Center – twice interrupted by power outages – the Galaxy won 2-0 in extra time on goals by Gregg Berhalter and Landon Donovan.

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Winners of the Supporters’ Shield with the best overall record in the league, the Galaxy are looking to become the first Shield winner since the Columbus Crew in 2008 to double as MLS Cup champion. Five times the winner of the Supporters’ Shield has also gone on to win MLS Cup, including the LA Galaxy in 2002 (also: D.C. United, 1997 and 1999; Kansas City Wizards in 2000). The Shield-winning Chicago Fire lost in MLS Cup 2003.

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The Galaxy will be the third team to play MLS Cup on their home ground. In 1997, D.C. United defeated the Colorado Rapids 2-1 before a sellout crowd of 57,431 at RFK Memorial Stadium. In 2002, a golden goal gave the Galaxy a 1-0 win against the New England Revolution before a crowd of 61,216 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., the largest crowd to see the MLS championship game.

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The Dynamo are back in the MLS title game for the first time since winning the second of their championships, which came in the first two years of the club’s existence after its transfer from San Jose. Both victories came against the New England Revolution, as Houston won on penalty kicks at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas in 2006, then won 2-1 the following year in Washington, D.C.

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Since the Dynamo came into the league, the all-time regular season series has been very tight. The Galaxy have won six games, scoring 17 goals, the Dynamo have won five, scoring 17 goals, and four games have been drawn.

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The Galaxy have defeated the Dynamo in their last four meetings at the Home Depot Center, including their meeting in the 2009 Western Conference Championship. Houston’s last win against the Galaxy in Carson came in 2007, a 3-1 triumph.

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The Galaxy will be looking to maintain the dominance of the Western Conference in recent MLS Cups. Since 2001, Western Conference clubs have won eight of the 10 MLS Cups. Only D.C. United’s 2004 victory and the Columbus win in the 2008 all-Eastern matchup have broken the West’s hegemony. The Dynamo were also in the Western Conference from their inception, until moving to the Eastern Conference this season with the addition of expansion teams Portland and Vancouver.

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The official injury reports as released by the two teams:

LA GALAXY

OUT: DF Sean Alvarado (R knee surgery); FW Chad Barrett (R foot dislocation); DF Leonardo (R knee surgery);

QUESTIONABLE: MF David Beckham (back spasms); DF Gregg Berhalter (R foot sprain); DF Bryan Jordan (L middle finger tendon rupture)

HOUSTON DYNAMO

OUT: MF Brad Davis (R quad strain); FW Jason Garey (R hip surgery); FW Cam Weaver (R hip surgery)

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TODAY’S REFEREES

Ricardo Salazar, of Bakersfield, Calif., will referee MLS Cup for the first time. He is in his 13th season as an MLS referee and became a FIFA referee in 2005. The assistant referees are Craig Lowry, of New Holland, Pa., and Peter Manikowski of Boston. It’s Lowry’s fifth MLS Cup; he was the junior assistant last year (also: 1999, 2000, 2003, 2006). Manikowski will be making his first MLS Cup appearance. The fourth official is Hilario Grajeda of Dayton, Ohio.

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THE HOME DEPOT CENTER

The Home Depot Center will become the first stadium to play host to four MLS Cup Finals. In the stadium’s inaugural year of 2003, the San Jose Earthquakes defeated the Chicago Fire 4-2. The following year, D.C. United defeated the Kansas City Wizards 3-2. In 2008, the Columbus Crew defeated the New York Red Bulls 3-1.

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This is the fifth time the final has been played in the greater Los Angeles area, the most of any metropolitan area. MLS Cup 1998 was played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, with the Chicago Fire defeating D.C. United 2-0.

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The Galaxy are looking to complete the entire season undefeated on their home ground. In the regular season, they became just the third club in MLS history to go unbeaten over the course of a single season (12-0-5), joining San Jose in 2005 and Real Salt Lake in 2010. The Galaxy won both of their home games in the MLS Cup Playoffs, all three of their home games in the CONCACAF Champions League and their lone home game in the U.S. Open Cup (played in Fullerton). The Galaxy conceded just eight goals in 17 league games at the HDC, one less than the fewest in league history.

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The Dynamo lost in both of their visits to Carson this season, also dropping a 3-0 decision to Chivas USA in addition to the 1-0 defeat against the Galaxy. While they have not defeated the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center since 2007, they were victorious against Chivas USA in their two previous meetings (2009 and 2010).

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THE COACHES

Galaxy head coach and general manager Bruce Arena will become the first coach to lead a team to five MLS Cup Finals. In charge of D.C. United from the outset of the league, Arena led that club to back-to-back victories in 1996 and 1997 before suffering a loss to Chicago in MLS Cup ‘98, his final MLS match before taking over the U.S. national team for nearly a decade. Arena has now led the Galaxy to MLS Cup twice in three seasons since taking over during the 2008 season.

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Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear is one of four former MLS players to also win MLS Cup as coach. Including two visits as the chief assistant of the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001 and 2003, this is Kinnear’s fifth appearance in an MLS Cup Final, a total matched by only Arena and Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan, who was head coach of Chicago in 2001, and an assistant in 1998 and ‘99 (D.C. United), as well as 2009 and 2011 with LA.

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Regardless of the victor, that coach will become the first to win three MLS Cups as head coach. Arena and Kinnear are joined by current Seattle Sounders FC head man Sigi Schmid (LA, 2002; Columbus, 2008) and current San Jose Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop (2001, ‘03) as the only coaches to win two MLS Cups. Arena and Kinnear are also the only two coaches to have won back-to-back MLS Cups.

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THE TEAMS

Just four players remain with the Dynamo from their back-to-back champion teams. Midfielder Brad Davis and defender Eddie Robinson played the entire match in both 2006 and 2007. Striker Brian Ching was named MLS Cup MVP in 2006, but missed the following season’s final through injury. Corey Ashe was in the squad for both finals.

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Just three players currently on the Galaxy roster were with the team when it won the MLS Cup the last time. In that 1-0 victory in extra time against the New England Revolution in 2005, Landon Donovan and Todd Dunivant each played the entire 120 minutes, while Josh Saunders was an unused substitute goalkeeper. Twelve players currently with the club were in the squad for MLS Cup 2009 in Seattle.

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Four players with the Galaxy have won the MLS Cup. Landon Donovan has won three; two with the San Jose Earthquakes (2001 and 2003) in addition to the 2005 win with LA. Todd Dunivant also won in 2003 (an unused substitute), while Josh Saunders was also an unused substitute in that ‘03 Earthquakes victory. Frankie Hejduk won in 2008 with the Columbus Crew; on the opposing New York Red Bulls that day was current Galaxy striker Mike Magee.

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Landon Donovan has scored three goals in his four MLS Cup appearances – the most of any player. He was also named MLS Cup MVP in 2003 with the San Jose Earthquakes.

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Three other participants this year have scored previously in MLS Cup: Brian Ching in 2006 for Houston, Frankie Hejduk in 2008 for Columbus, and Mike Magee in 2009 for the LA Galaxy.

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Donovan would join very select company with a fourth MLS Cup title. Just four players in MLS Cup history have been on the field for four or more MLS Cup victories: Jeff Agoos (5, 3 with D.C. and 2 with San Jose), Jaime Moreno (4, all with D.C.), Dwayne De Rosario (4, 2 with San Jose and 2 with Houston) and Brian Mullan (4, 1 with San Jose, 2 with Houston, 1 with Colorado). Donovan is currently among a group of six 3-time winners (Marco Etcheverry, Pat Onstad, Richard Mulrooney, Wade Barrett, Craig Waibel and Dynamo defender Eddie Robinson, who was on the field for victories in 2003, 2006 and 2007, and also an unused substitute in 2001).

LA GALAXY         

The Galaxy were hit with a major injury blow early in their preparations for MLS Cup when forward Chad Barrett suffered a dislocated right foot, which will put him out of the final. “It was such an odd situation, the whole thing,” Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant said. “It was a nothing play. There was no contact. His cleat got stuck in the ground and his leg just rolled over. His foot was not where it was supposed to be. That’s unsettling when you see that.”

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Barrett started all three games for LA in the MLS Cup Playoffs to date. In the first two games, he came off in place of Adam Cristman, who is the odds-on choice to start in his place in MLS Cup 2011. Another possibility is Paolo Cardozo, who came on late for Robbie Keane in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal Series. “From the team standpoint, he’s been a big part of our playoff run and we’re certainly going to miss him, but we’ve had those things happen all year and we’ve been able to cope with them,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. “I’m sad for him, individually, because he had the chance to play for a championship in front of his home crowd and he’s meant so much to us this year.”

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Mike Magee has scored in each round of the MLS Cup Playoffs thus far; and with a goal, he will become the first player in MLS postseason history to score in each game along the way. In 2009, Landon Donovan scored in both legs of the conference semifinal and the conference championship, before being held scoreless in MLS Cup (also missing his attempt in the penalty shootout).

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Robbie Keane rejoined the Galaxy after leading Ireland to qualification for the 2012 European Championship. In Friday first leg, Keane scored two goals and added an assist as the Republic of Ireland strolled to a 4-0 victory against Estonia in Tallinn. In Tuesday’s second leg, Keane played 68 minutes as Ireland eased home 2-0 winners, 6-0 on aggregate. “He'll get the rest he needs, and he'll be ready Sunday. Robbie's the kind of guy that can step off the plane and play. That's the way he is. We'll give him a couple of easy days and have him ready for Sunday,” said Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena.

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Landon Donovan withdrew from the USA’s trip to France and Slovenia after the Galaxy reached MLS Cup. Donovan missed the final three league matches, as well as a pair of U.S. friendlies in October, with a quadriceps ailment. “The last thing anyone would want would be to go there, play the game, get hurt and miss the final and then we’d never forgive any of us,” Donovan said. “Had this been the beginning of the season, it might have been a different story. Had I not been injured previously, it might have been a different story. There were a lot of factors that played into that decision, and when all those factors were added up, it overwhelmingly made sense to stay here.”

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Over the course of 2011 season, the Galaxy trailed just 117 minutes at the Home Depot Center. They fell behind in just five games in the regular season and in the Western Conference Championship; the latest they trailed in any game was the 58th minute (Oct. 1 vs. Real Salt Lake), the only time they trailed in the second half. “We’re just excited about it more than anything. We love playing here,” Donovan said. “Even on nights when it’s not full, there’s a great energy around the stadium. So you picture what Sunday is probably going to look like, how can you not get excited about that as a player?”

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The Galaxy used 15 different players in their three games in the MLS Cup Playoffs. They used just 12 starters in the three games, the only variation came in the second game of the Western Conference Semifinals when Chris Birchall started in place of the suspended Juninho.

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David Beckham is in the final year of his five-year deal with the Galaxy. In his final year at Manchester United, in 2003, he won a sixth English Premier League championship; in his last year of a four-year stint at Spain’s Real Madrid in 2007, he won La Liga.

HOUSTON DYNAMO

The Dynamo have not allowed a goal in 264 minutes, after conceding in the seventh minute in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. Philadelphia. It’s the ninth-longest shutout streak in MLS Cup Playoffs history; the record is 374 minutes, set by the New England Revolution in 2002.

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The Dynamo used 15 different players in their three games in the MLS Cup Playoffs, but head coach Dominic Kinnear maintained the same starting XI in each game of the run to MLS Cup 2011.

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The Dynamo, of course, suffered a massive blow in the Eastern Conference Championship when Brad Davis was forced off in the first half with a right quad injury. The Dynamo have listed him as out in their midweek injury report. “I think a lot of people might have sort of written us off at halftime during the Kansas City game, when Brad got taken off, and I think we did OK,” said Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear. “So you have to kind of play in the moment. We’re a good team with or without Brad. Obviously, we’d love to have him out there; it’s probably not going to happen, but the game is played in 90 minutes and lots of things can happen.”

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Since Geoff Cameron moved back to central defense on Sept. 14 against Columbus, the Dynamo have not lost. In the nine games since (six league, three playoff), Houston has conceded just six goals. “I think seeing where the team is and where he’s playing and the results, it’s safe to say he’s found a home at center back,” Kinnear said. Cameron was named to the 2009 MLS Best XI as a defender, but moved into midfield in 2010 with the departures of central midfielders Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark. “Geoff is getting settled in at center back, and him and Bobby [Boswell] have formed a good partnership,” said Kinnear. “He looks very comfortable back there and given more time there, he’ll just get better.”

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After Davis’ injury against Sporting KC, Kinnear moved Corey Ashe from left back to the left side of midfield and inserted Jermaine Taylor at left back. Taylor made one appearance over the final five league games, and in replacing Davis, made his only appearance in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Colin Clark, who alternated with Danny Cruz on the right of midfield over the final six games of the league campaign, is also a possibility to fill Davis’ spot. “I’m comfortable at left back, and if I get the chance, I’ve played against Landon Donovan before and I know he’s a tough, cool opponent,” Taylor said. “But I think I can match him up, and I have confidence in everyone around me to get the job done.”

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Brian Ching’s last goal in the regular season came Aug. 20, the opening goal in a victory against Real Salt Lake. After going the final eight games without a goal or an assist (five appearances), Ching set up a goal in the first leg against Philadelphia and scored in the second leg. If Brad Davis does not start, Ching will be the only starter from the Eastern Conference Championship to have played in an MLS Cup Final. “His leadership as a captain in the big games has shown up on both sides of the ball,” Kinnear said. “He’s not just a good player going forward but as the first line of defense. He’s one of the best players in the league.”

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Midfielder Adam Moffat, obtained July 21 from Portland, was a member of the MLS Cup-winning Columbus Crew in 2008. But that season, after scoring two goals in the first seven games, he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee, putting him out for the remainder of the season. “It was great to be around that team in 2008, but not playing was just a different feeling,” Moffat said. “I’m sure many guys have felt that when you’re not involved or maybe get suspended for the final or miss due to injury. It’s just different when you’re a part of it.” Moffat started 15 of the final 16 league games for the Dynamo since July 30; since that time, Houston has lost just twice.

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The Dynamo officially scored 14 goals from set pieces over the course of the 2011 season: nine from corner kicks and five from free kicks (one direct). That total was tied for the most in MLS along with the LA Galaxy. The Galaxy scored a further four goals from penalty kicks, the Dynamo three. “We have five or six guys that feel they can score every single time on set pieces,” said Brian Ching. “Not too many teams have five or six markers. I think that’s why we have so much success on our set pieces.” Said Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant: "They’re dangerous from crosses. They’re dangerous on set pieces. Losing Brad Davis hurts a little bit, but they’ve got a lot of guys that can put the ball on the box. They have big bodies. They have [Brian] Ching, [Geoff] Cameron, [Bobby] Boswell coming on set pieces and [Andre] Hainault. They've got a lot of guys who are dangerous. That's what they look for.”

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Five of the goals allowed by Houston this season came on set pieces; six of the Galaxy’s goals conceded came on standard situations. But two of the goals the Dynamo scored in the 3-1 win in the season finale came on dead-ball situations, and the Galaxy allowed a goal on a corner kick in the playoff victory against Real Salt Lake. “People are going to have to want it a lot more on this team,” Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez said. “We’ve been letting up goals on set pieces in the last third of this year, specifically. I don’t know what it’s been, but I think everyone knows that that’s been one of our weaknesses the last third of the season. Everyone knows they have to step up and mark the right way."

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THE FINAL

MLS Cup 2011 is a complete sellout. Just 10 minutes after additional tickets were put on sale last Thursday, they were all gone.

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The MLS Cup Final will be distributed by 27 international broadcasters (mostly on cable/DTH) in 115 countries and with a potential reach of 120 million households.

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MLS CUP 2011 GAME CONDITIONS

Should MLS Cup be tied at the end of regulation time (90 minutes), a 30-minute extra-time session shall ensue and be played to its completion. If no team holds a lead after that time, the game shall be decided by the penalty kicks.