Friday, November 18, 2011

The Friday Five

It's a special MLS Cup edition of the Friday Five today, where we peer into the crystal ball to explore whether Brad Davis' absence has unofficially put the kabash on Houston's chances, whether Donovan has anything left to prove and if Jacob has the stones to pick against LA. Let's dive in, shall we?

All we've heard all week is how powerful this Galaxy side is. How much of a chance do you give Houston?

Will: Not much of one. Look, the stars just aren't aligned for the Dynamo this week. They've had an enjoyable run and will be happy to have gotten this far, but it'll take a near miracle for Houston to pull this off. First and most importantly, no Brad Davis. He's been their talisman and played all 34 games this season. How does Dom Kinnear draw this one up in the sand without his set piece mainstay and calming influence in the middle of the park? It remains to be seen, but I wouldn't favor a team working off a makeshift game plan that had to be drawn up in the last two weeks of the year.

Despite Bruce Arena's protestations to the contrary, LA are deadbolt favorites. It's been my opinion all along that this team is the most talented in MLS history, competing maybe with those DC United teams from the early years. So make no mistake, Houston winning would be, in my opinion anyway, the grandest upset in Cup history. That the game is at the Home Depot Center only makes this seem more like LA's year. 

Jacob: The Dynamo have enough of a chance. Are they outclassed up and down the field? Absolutely. I'll even concede that this Galaxy team can at least hold a candle to Arena's first MLS juggernaut, but those teams won championships. This one has not, and while it has looked destined to win it all this year, they have shown just enough vulnerability during their playoff run that an intelligent Dynamo team may be able to exploit. They shouldn't, but a poor tackle from LA here and a well-placed free-kick there gives Houston the chance to destroy the Galaxy's apparent destiny. For a team like Houston, a chance is all you need.

How much will Landon Donovan boost his MLS legacy by winning his second title with LA? Does he have anything left to prove?

Will: By most unbiased measures, Donovan is the "best" player in MLS history. Probably not the most technically gifted, but he's made a mark on the league like nobody in its history. The mighty mite from Ontario has three MLS Cups and an MVP, but no hardware of substance since his first season with LA in 2005. His MLS legacy isn't in any immediate jeopardy of crumbling, but there will be whispers if LA falls on Sunday. How can there not be?

Donovan has played on (unquestionably) the league's most talented team for the last five seasons and has only a worthless SS trophy and a Western Conference title to show. It's not all down to him, but he shoulders a large portion of the criticism because he wears the armband. We've talked about it today that LA losing to Houston would be a colossal upset of the first order. It wouldn't do so irreparably, but losing on Sunday would absolutely tarnish Donovan's rep in the league and add another notch to a lengthening bed post of failures. 

Jacob: When it's all said and done Landon Donovan will likely retire as the league's all-time scoring leader - he needs 19 to tie Cunningham - and could very well surpass Steve Ralston's all-time assist mark - 41 to go. Yet for all his personal accolades, the naysayers are well equipped to criticize his lack of team success. He hasn't led a team to victory in MLS Cup in that he was merely a young hotshot in 2001 and 2003 and the 2005 team was Cobi Jones's - some say he was basically coaching the team by the end of it all. I don't know that I buy that, but there is some truth in those arguments.

What winning on Sunday would do is expand Donovan's legacy by tying it to what international media will hail as the success of the Beckham Experiment. The international conquest of Major League Soccer by a mini Super Club. Well that's crap, but legacies exist in a world that is not entirely rational. Should the Galaxy finish off their season like they should, then Donovan can add 'Captain of the (2nd) Best Team in MLS History to his Scroll-esque Resume." He shouldn't have to, but he does. Heck, maybe they'll even make a movie about it. I'd rather watch The Jay Demerit Story. In short, he doesn't need this but as long as he thinks he does he'll probably get it. As we've seen before, a focused Landon Donovan is a dangerous Landon Donovan and so long as the thinks his legacy's on the line, watch out.

What do the Dynamo need to do to pull of the upset?

Will: Sucker punches. Lots of them. I don't mean the kind of low blows that earn you DQs, but the kind of snake-like quick strikes that befit underdogs. Houston's midfield will be hard pressed to keep possession with Beckham, Magee and Juninho seeking out space and Donovan and Keano diving into empty pockets. With that in mind, Houston will not try and emulate tiki-taka on Sunday, but instead should search out quick counters and try to catch Josh Saunders napping with long rang bombs and sly set pieces. There may be no Brad Davis, but Adam Moffat has proven capable from free kicks, and Andre Hainault and Brian Ching are bulls in the area.

In short, the Dynamo need to rope-a-dope LA. Lull the Galaxy into a false sense of security by conceding high possession numbers and then sneak in at opportune times for goals. In my mind, it looks a lot like Inter's CL success over Barca with Mourinho. You will concede possession. You will concede shot totals. Just score when it counts.

Jacob: Sucker punches is a bit harsh don't you think? Dominic Kinnear will have a plan for his team. They will try to absorb loads of pressure, but also relieve it with some possession of their own. Sure they lack the quality of the Galaxy, but they're no slouches and possession isn't black and white. Conceding the wings, staying compact, holding the ball when possible, and yes, executing some piercing counters - paging Ashe, Carr, and Costly - is the recipe for most any underdog.

Tally Hall will have to maintain his solid form in goal and the Dynamo will rely heavily on Brian Ching to do what he does - his aerial match-up with Gonzo will be crucial - but giving their defense enough time to breathe with some meaningful possession will be key. The Dynamo have the horses to pull this off, it's just a matter of Kinnear and Co. executing the plan they've had a full two weeks to construct. For what it's worth I prefer to liken the Dynamo to the lovable underdogs that the US was vs. Spain in 2009 rather than anything that Mourinho had his hands in.

For all the hullabaloo regarding LA's star-studded team and the savvy bearded veterans from Houston, cup finals have a way of being decided by less-heralded characters. An X-factor, if you will, that tends to pop up at the opportune time and decide his team's fate. Who's it going to be?

Jacob: I'll have my eyes glued to Adam Moffat in the center of the Dynamo midfield. His duel with Beckham will play a crucial part in deciding the final. If Moffat fails to match Beckham's re-discovered work rate - it is a contract year - the Galaxy will effectively set up shop in Houston's half and let the game flow or stagnate as they see fit. But if Moffat can continue his post-season form it will go a long way towards relieving what promises to be a fair bit of pressure on the Houston defense. Should Houston get into a rhythm with some meaningful possession in the attacking third, not only are Beckham and co. likely to hack down the Houston's danger men, but it will be Moffat filling in for Brad Davis delivering the set pieces that the Dynamo depend on. Moffat will look to give the underdogs a chance in his midfield battles, but the cup will be won and lost on what Moffat's range and set pieces can generate around the LA goal.

Will: I don't know how he's done it, but Mike Magee has somehow become LA's most indispensable threat. Magee has three huge goals in LA's three playoff victories. His first was the only goal in the away leg against New York, he tied the return leg at 1-1 when he connected on a header from a Beckham cross and he performed a ditto act in the conference final against RSL to break a 1-all deadlock. For all the talk about Donovan and Beckham and Keane and Arena, Mike Magee has been LA's best performer in the playoffs. Magee is a presence around goal, but it's equally important to train an eye on Beckham when Magee sweeps into the box. Of Magee's eight goals this year, Becks has assisted on seven of them, including two in the playoffs that he brushed right onto Magee's noggin. The two have a preternatural connection on the field and while the average joes follow Donovan, the smart ones will watch Magee.

Nut up or shut up time. Who wins and how?

Jacob: The Galaxy really ought to finish the script here at home, give Arena another MLS Cup, see Beckham off into the sunset, and facilitate the post-match romance Will has promised us. This is MLS Cup though, the Twilight Zone of soccer, and we expect unexpected promises to unfold. Houston will no doubt soak up some serious Galaxy pressure, but with an astute back line of their own and an in-form Tally Hall in goal, the Dynamo will do just enough to get to halftime scoreless. They'll do just enough to bother the Galaxy in the attacking third, Ching will draw some fouls, and one of the ensuing free kicks will end up in the back of the net. LA will press for an equalizer and Carlo Costly will nail them down on the counter. The Galaxy go on to snag one back, but it's too little too late. Houston wins 2-1.

Will: That's bold, Jacob. Too bold, I fear. I'd love to see some legitimate back-and-forth in this game, but I can't see LA failing to hold serve at home for the first time all year. Houston's best bet is a pure bunker approach in hopes for penalties, but LA has had no trouble scoring goals of late so I have trouble visualizing that outcome. I can see Houston, buoyed by the stage, throwing a few jabs in the first 10 minutes only to succumb to LA's talent for the final 80. Robbie Keane poaches a goal just before the half and Beckham sneaks in on the right flank and throttles in a cross for a wide open Magee at the back corner, who punches in a header to complete a 2-0 victory and finish off what should rightly be one of the most one-sided MLS Cup finals we've yet seen. 

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