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Sunday, 20 November 2011

First Person View - MLS Cup Final Preview – Late, Long-form and Long-winded.

    The boys over at Waking the Red asked me to contribute to an MLS Cup Preview, as I began writing I realized I had way too much to say to fit into the proper format, so I decided to expand on my points with a longer, sister-post.

    The preview has been split into two parts, the first can be found here, and the second here.

NB – Apologies for the scattered nature of this post, it’s getting close to kickoff, and I wanted to release it rather than scrap it due to imperfections because of how much I’d already written. There may well be spelling and grammatical errors.

Going Forward – Los Angeles more firepower, Houston more variation.

    Initial impressions make Los Angeles the overwhelming offensive force in this matchup with their cluster of high-priced stars and unchallenged supremacy in the regular season, especially when compared to Houston’s - at times - lacklustre campaign.

    Further examination however paints a different picture. For all their domination the Galaxy was not as offensive as their record implies. Of their nineteen regular season wins twelve were by only a single goal, indicating that they were able to see off opponents, but were hardly spectacular.

    Even in the playoffs they were less than impressive, seeing off a tired New York – who were on short rest having dispatched Dallas in the wildcard round - by a lone goal in each of their two meetings, before taking advantage of a depleted Salt Lake by two goals, both scored in the second half of their meeting in the conference final.

    Houston too have been very professional in their performances while facing stiffer, fitter and younger competition; fighting past Philadelphia by a pair of one-goal wins and Kansas City with a two-goal shutout victory on the road in their conference final, both of whom were as well-rested and full-strengthed as they could hope to be.  

    A poor regular season on the road has been replaced by an undefeated run of nine matches, including five away from home; four of which they have won.

    Both teams play well on the break, tearing apart the opposition on the transition. Both are extremely dangerous from set-pieces, and crosses delivered into the box.

    Sometimes it pays to be battle-hardened, especially in the playoffs, and despite their youth – they are apparently the youngest team in MLS­­ – they have just enough experienced heads to guide them through the evening. Houston has the benefit of having a number of players who can deliver when necessary – they have no regular season goal-scorer with more than five goals – though four players are tied for that mark - while a further three tallied four goals each. Brian Ching, 

    Houston has five different goal-scorers in these playoffs to Los Angeles’ three. That overreliance on the form of Mike Magee, Robbie Keane – fresh off international duty, the strong form of David Beckham and Landon Donovan’s penalties could well be their undoing. 

At the Back – Both solid, Houston bigger at both ends.

    These may well be the two stingiest defenses in the league.

    Los Angeles has a stable back four for the entire season; defender of the year, Omar Gonzalez, Best XI left-back Todd Dunivant, and consistent performances from AJ De La Garza and Sean Franklin, as well as excellent veteran contributions from Gregg Berhalter and Frankie Hejduk and youthful contributions from the bench when required.

    Houston’s back-line has been much more fluid over the span of the season, with Bobby Boswell, Andre Hainault, Corey Ashe, Jermaine Taylor, Hunter Freeman, Geoff Cameron, and the departed Mike Chabala and Lovell Palmer all contributing.

    Since Cameron moved from the midfield to the back, forcing Hainault out to right-back, and should Brad Davis’ injury move Ashe forward with Taylor in his stead Houston’s defense becomes the less-attacking of the two, a very stable platform from which to build, but leaving the attack up for the forward six. Conversely, Franklin and Dunivant are crucial to LA’s width when they press up the field.

    Neither side is particularly speedy; both are excellent at dealing with aerial attacks. The deciding factor will be which defensive midfielder can expedite the proceedings to better effect the outcome. Juninho must dominate, freeing up Beckham from his defensive duties; while Adam Moffat must do the same for Houston, allowing Luiz Camargo freedom to attack, while also contributing defensive cover when necessary, though he does have more protection behind him than his fellow Brazilian.

    This is a toss-up; whichever unit excels on the night will grossly affect the outcome. Both sides have a tendency to give up chances, so mistakes must be kept to a minimum to succeed.

Between the Pipes – Very even; Saunders makes impossible reflex saves, Hall less spectacular but there when necessary

    Houston has allowed only one goal in their three playoff matches. Tally Hall has been one of the unsung goalkeeping heroes this season. For much of the year he – along with Dan Kennedy – where the two most important keepers to their teams to not get the attention they deserved.

    Los Angeles has allowed two goals in their three postseason ties. Josh Saunders has finally overtaken Donovan Ricketts as the number one keeper, following the broken arm the Jamaican suffered in that memorable match versus San Jose when Magee was forced into goal after Saunders had been sent off, having replaced the injured Ricketts.

    Saunders has pulled off a number of unbelievable saves in the postseason, stepping up big on several occasions in the series with New York to paw a goal-bound effort off the line, most memorably robbing Joel Lindpere of a sure goal in the first leg of their series.

Mind Games – Too close to call

    Two of the most celebrated coaches in MLS history, Bruce Arena versus Dominic Kinnear. To give either an advantage over the other would be silly. Both have won a pair of MLS Cups – Kinnear a further two as an assistant; each has been named Coach of the Year – Arena thrice, Kinnear once; but it is Arena who takes the head-to-head record with doubling Kinnear’s two wins with a further match drawn.

    Each side will be well-drilled in their own game plans, the tendencies of their opponent, and the various possibilities of the night. Each will be well-rested with two weeks in between matches and each will have endlessly studied and planned. Each will field a four-four-two with a slight diamond feel to the midfield – Juninho and Moffat holding, while Beckham and Camargo move forward freely.

    Both are leaders of their side, coaches whose imprint on their team is very noticeable. Arena is perhaps the more studious of the two, meticulously planning a defense first strategy designed to absorb and counteract the opponent’s strengths allowing Los Angeles to pounce on space with a quick attack from their speedy front four – two strikers and two wide midfielders.

    Kinnear is perhaps the better motivator, not so much via inspirational speeches, but more so through his understanding of his players and how best to field them for success.

    That’s not to say that either does not possess both qualities in abundance.

    I foresee the match playing out as follows. Houston will be very cautious from the start, attempting to force Los Angeles out of their advantageous defensive posture for the first twenty minutes or so. As the first half comes to an end, Houston will press forward more. The referee will hold off on whistles for the first bit as well, but as the players get a bit tired and the match becomes sloppy there will be some dangerous free kick opportunities that Houston will seek to utilize.

    An early goal will change everything, but do not expect either side to take undue risks until at least the half hour mark.

    The second half will start with a flurry, but then grind out as each side contemplates holding off for extra time and penalties.

    It will be a tight match, could even go the full distance and be decided by spot kicks.   

Head-to-Head

    Each side won their home matches in their two regular season meetings.

    Los Angeles pulled off a 1-0 victory at the Home Depot Center through a Donovan penalty kick awarded when a Chris Birchall shot deflected off Palmer’s hand at the end of the first half. It was an otherwise very even match, peculiar considering how the two clubs were heading in opposite directions at the time – LA unbeaten in four, Houston winless in four. The Galaxy was with Beckham, who had returned to England to take part in Gary Neville’s testimonial.

    Houston took the final match of the 2011 regular season with a 3-1 win, off goals from Moffat, Boswell and Costly – interestingly Moffat also provided the assist on Boswell’s goal, and Costly’s was his first in the league. Foreshadow.

    The lopsided score-line is misleading however. Los Angeles fielded a very experimental lineup, giving minutes to fringe players – Dasan Robinson, Hector Jimenez, Dan Keat, Jack McBean, et al. - and resting their usual starters.

    Los Angeles won their only playoff meeting in that infamous blackout match from the 2009 Western Conference Final 2-0, nabbing a pair of goals, one in each half, of extra time.

Either, Or

David Beckham and Brad Davis/Adam Moffat/Luiz Camargo

    Is he or isn’t he? Last or best? Will Moffat and Camargo fill Davis’ boots? So many questions about the final will be answered and decided by the midfield.

    Was Davis’ injury a ruse? It was declared that he would not be available way too early to not be suspicious. But that sort of uncertainty can be detrimental to both sides, as Houston may have alternating game plans depending on who is on the pitch rather than focusing on what they definitely have, while LA too will be caught in two minds regarding how to approach their opponent.

Landon Donovan and Brian Ching

    Which spiritual leader and captain will grab the game by the throat and will their team to the championship?

    Two of the finest players to ever see the field for MLS will be leading their respective teams in cup final. Very different styles between the two – Donovan the fleet-footed, skillful wide man/striker, probing the defense with his speed and vision; Ching the proverbial big man dominating the box, holding up play, with a silky touch to bring his teammates into the game.

    Two players exemplary of their respective team’s ethos; both incredibly hard-working and selfless in their pursuit of victory. Both had difficult season, Donovan with substandard production numbers due in part to a more conscientious defensive position, Ching with nagging injuries.

    Currently Ching is in better form production wise in the playoffs at least. Donovan has only contributed his deftness from the spot – two goals – and a few clever distributions from the midfield, even missing an excellent counterattacking chance.

The home crowd atmosphere

    How will having the cup final played in front of a partisan crowd affect the outcome?

    The match is sold-out, and has been for a while. The difficulty Houston’s traveling fans have had in getting seats has been disappointing, hopefully in the future a section could be held in reserve for those fans willing to make the trek.

    LA’s crowd is hardly the most hostile in the league – unless you find screaming teenage girls intimidating, which I do.


The Winner

    The head says Galaxy, how can you go against the storybook tale that the bigwigs at MLS have been hoping for, but my heart says the Beckham saga will not end this well, yet that is.

    I’m picking Houston, Los Angeles has had it too easy all season; they’re in for a dog-fight against Kinnear’s men.

    Beckham will be back next year, with even more to prove.

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