After a pair of dramatic, compelling MLS conference finals, we have a title-game matchup that looks, on paper at least, like a classic favorite against a heavy underdog.
In one corner, there are the Supporters’ Shield–winning, high-profile LA Galaxy, who will be playing in their home stadium. In the other, bloodied but unbowed, stand the underestimated, injury-depleted Houston Dynamo.
Let’s look back at how they got there, and see if this MLS Cup pairing is as lopsided as some would suggest.
One for the Ages
Sunday night’s Galaxy-Real Salt Lake match was one of the most hotly anticipated conference finals in league history, and, amazingly, the game lived up the hype. Both teams were sharp and they played unshackled, attacking soccer from the opening whistle.
Three minutes in, LA’s Chad Barrett lashed an attempt over the bar from 20 yards, squandering a golden early chance. Just two minutes later, RSL’s Robbie Russell stabbed a loose ball in the box at Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders, who did well to hang on.
That kind of back-and-forth would become a pattern: After LA’s Landon Donovan opened the scoring with a 23rd-minute penalty, RSL marched down the field and tied up the game two minutes later. Jámison Olave knocked down a corner kick, and Álvaro Saborío redirected the ball into the net.
WATCH: Saborío equalizes for RSL
The woodwork then got into the back-and-forth action. Robbie Keane clanged a shot off Nick Rimando’s upright in the 32nd minute, and Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman thumped the LA post right before the break—a pivotal moment in the game. If that shot had gone in, RSL would’ve taken a 2-1 lead, and heavy momentum, into the second half.
As it was, though, the teams went into the locker room tied at 1-1. And Beckerman’s near-goal would loom even larger when, in the 58th minute, David Beckham hit one of the greatest crosses you’ll ever see, in any league, at any level, and Mike Magee met it in the box, powering a flying header past Nick Rimando for a 2-1 Galaxy lead.
It was the third time in three playoff games that Beckham and Magee had combined for a goal.
But as with the first goal, LA fans had barely finished celebrating before RSL stormed back to threaten Saunders’s goal. Fabián Espíndola, less than two minutes after Magee’s header, contorted his body and rifled a shot off the crossbar from a tough angle.
WATCH: Magee puts away Beckham cross
A Keane Finish
After hitting the post for the third time in three games in the first half, Keane finally missed the woodwork and hit the netting in the 68th minute. Donovan sent the Irish international down the left side, and he cut back sharply on Olave before firing a shot that beat Rimando at the far post and iced the 3-1 win for the Galaxy.
In the final reckoning, the Galaxy got a game-winning assist from Beckham, a goal and an assist each from Keane and Donovan, and key performances from Magee and Saunders, who made two brilliant stops down the stretch.
Does anyone honestly think this team is beatable in the final?
Houston Answer Questions
Most observers expected the Dynamo to have a hard time advancing past Sporting KC in the Eastern Conference Championship at Livestrong Sporting Park on Sunday, and when Houston lost MLS assists leader Brad Davis to a quadriceps injury just before halftime, the optimistic ones probably gave up hope.
Davis set up 16 of Houston’s goals this season, and is a legitimate MVP candidate. He also took the vast majority of Houston’s set pieces, a vital part of the Dynamo’s offensive arsenal.
But before Davis’ injury against Sporting, Houston had had the better of the chances, putting a scare into the sellout crowd of 20,839, who were hoping this game would be more of a coronation than a competition.
When Davis went down, Houston coach Dominic Kinnear brought on Jamaican international Jermaine Taylor to play left back, and moved Corey Ashe from that spot up to left midfield.
And Adam Moffat, who started the season with the Portland Timbers, took over Davis’s duties on re-starts. If you squinted your eyes, you could convince yourself that Moffat, with his similar hair color and beard, was Davis, albeit a right-footed one.
The illusion was enhanced eight minutes after the break, when Moffat’s right foot curled in a free kick that Taylor headed back across the face of the goal. It caromed off Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, and Houston defender Andre Hainault bundled it in for his second goal of the playoffs.
While the fans at Livestrong kept the faith vocally, Sporting struggled to create full-blown chances, and after coach Peter Vermes made three attack-minded subs, they were vulnerable on the counter. In the 87th minute, they paid the price when Luiz Camargo sprung Carlo Costly, and the Honduran banged in the insurance goal off the post.
WATCH: Another set-piece goal for Hainault
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Despite the loss, Sporting KC, like Real Salt Lake, can look back on an excellent season, and take heart in their bright prospects for 2012.
As for MLS Cup 2011 in two weeks, Houston will certainly face daunting odds against LA at the Home Depot Center, where the Galaxy are unbeaten this year.
The Dynamo will again be missing Davis, who has already ruled himself out. But then many of us ruled Houston out weeks ago. And yet, here they are.
Historically speaking, this is a matchup of MLS powerhouses. LA have won two MLS Cups, in 2002 and 2005. They have also win the Supporters’ Shield the past two seasons and will be making their second trip to MLS Cup in the past three years.
Kinnear and the Dynamo are heading to their third title game in six years; they won the 2006 and 2007 MLS Cups. With the win over SKC, Houston also became the first team to have advanced to the league title game as champions of both the East and the West.
With their star-studded lineup, consistent success, and homefield advantage, the Galaxy must be considered overwhelming favorites.
On the other side are the Dynamo, with their understated confidence, physicality, sound defense and lethal ability on set pieces. The Dynamo are undefeated in nine matches, including seven wins, but feel free to doubt their chances. In fact, they may prefer that you do. It’s worked for them so far.
WATCH: Davis rules himself out of Cup