Bruce Arena won the tactical battle; what now for LA Galaxy as David Beckham leaves; and how Calen Carr changed the game
When Calen Carr surged through and hammered home the game's opener just before half time, there was a momentary sense that this could be Houston's year. Another smash and grab success in sight. But then the dream unraveled: The Dynamo's chief attacking threat was forced to go off injured on the hour mark, as Carr crumpled in a heap following an innocuous looking clash with Omar Gonzalez.
Then Houston committed the cardinal sin: switching off at a set piece. As the ball was initially cleared Juninho picked it up and swung in a cross, Bobby Boswell lost Gonzalez who headed home. Houston couldn't get out of the box quick enough, and began to drop deeper and deeper with the LA onslaught in full force.
Carr's diagonal runs across the back line caused huge problems and gave Houston an out ball. Several times Brad Davis and Adam Moffat clipped the ball down the channel and Carr gave Houston's defense a breather. When he went off that all changed. Macoumba Kandji was forced to operate on the left wing and kept cutting inside, which played directly into LA's hands. Houston lost their momentum and cutting edge. Brian Ching briefly revived Dynamo when he came on as he carved out half chances for himself but that was as good as it got.
A year on from MLS Cup final defeat in LA, it was a case of déjà vu for Dominic Kinnear's men at the final whistle. But this season they made a better go of it. Houston learnt their lessons and offensively they were much more adventurous than 2011. Boniek Garcia created several chances with surging runs but he became far too isolated out wide and his impact on the game was limited. LA did a good job of locking him down.
Houston should be proud of their achievement, they rank 16th in the league's salary rankings. They are a solid and dependable organization with a brand new stadium, a great manager and a strong core of talented players who will continue to gain experience for yet another MLS Cup appearance.
As the final whistle sounded at the Home Depot Center, a sense of closure arrived amid the reams of tickertape. David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane saluted the Galaxy fans for perhaps the last time as a united group. The band is breaking up. But what a last encore it was.
The phrase "Hollywood ending" was everywhere. But there will be no sequel for this set of players. Leading the exodus is that man Beckham. His success on and off the field has been analyzed, scrutinized and measured on so many levels so many times since he announced he was leaving MLS almost two week ago. To be fair to Beckham, he left it all on the pitch on Saturday, with a stunning first half display which saw him ping long balls to the left and right at ease. He disappeared for a while in the middle of the game, when LA did too with Houston in the ascendancy, but came roaring back in true Becks fashion to help the Galaxy seal a deserved comeback win.
"I just hope people have enjoyed me playing here and watching me play for the Galaxy. It's what I always hope for when I step on the field...I think I had a successful time here, but it's up to other people to decide that. It's better going out with two titles than one, obviously. It's been a successful six years here, reaching three MLS Cup finals and winning two. Winning the second one, it's even more satisfying. I'll enjoy this one tonight, I think."
And Landon Donovan revealed he could also be heading for the exit, with many believing he would if LA won yet again. The Galaxy's captain scored the game-winning penalty kick and looked emotional yet relieved after the game. Donovan had this to say:
"It's just been a long two years. For all of us. It's not a woe-is-me story, but I have to listen to my heart and my gut, and right now my gut says to get away for awhile."
And then there's Keane. Most believe he'll still be around next season. With his sensational second half of the season and his six goals in the playoffs, it's hard to see how LA can win without him. Plus him and Bruce Arena are now best buds:
"I think we grew up together in Brooklyn," Arena said. "We have the same kind of mentality. He is one tough bastard."
With some supremely talented players edging towards the exits with their heads held high, a younger revamped LA will take to the pitch to try for the 'three-peat' in 2013. Arena and his coaching staff face their biggest challenge yet to bring more trophies to the HDC . But, hey, this is Hollywood, wouldn't a trilogy be great?
Omar Gonzalez, the MLS Cup 2012 MVP, not only dragged LA back into the game with his stunning display of power and determination on both sides of the ball, after already salvaging LA's season by returned for the final months to shore up a leaky backline. But now Europe beckons for Gonzalez and he could perhaps be the biggest loss for LA - on the field at least.
Gonzalez was everywhere on Saturday: he marked Will Bruin out of the game, stepped into midfield to start attacks and then when LA needed him most popped up with the equalizer to get the ball rolling.
In three second half minutes Gonzalez single-handedly swung the pendulum in LA's favor. First he challenged Calen Carr fairly, but Houston's goal scorer knocked knees with Gonzalez' robust frame and his afternoon, and the Dynamo's biggest attacking threat, was finished. Then moments later he rose highest to head perfectly across goal to equalize.
Then for the game-winning penalty it had to be Gonzalez who nodded the ball across for the melee to ensue as Ricardo Clark handled. The 6-foot-5 defender was involved in everything good that LA did. No wonder they were desperate for him to return from his ACL injury so soon.
In the final few months of the season Gonzalez played 12 times for LA - they kept clean sheets in six of them. And they'd only kept three clean sheets all season prior to that.
But he may not be on US soil for much longer. European clubs are lining up big money moves for the commanding central defender and this may be the right time to move on. His rehabilitation is over, Gonzalez has passed the test to come back from ACL surgery and be the same player he was 12 months ago. The 2011 MLS defender of the year is ready for a big move overseas. To whom remains a conundrum. But whoever gets Gonzalez has a star in the making.
Before the weekend Gonzalez hoped a good showing on Saturday would force him into Jurgen Klinsmann's plans. The USMNT manager should be persuading Gonzalez to keep his allegiance to the US instead of switching to the Mexican national team - and could perhaps help him out with a move to the Bundesliga or elsewhere. Gonzalez deserves to test himself at the highest level.
Despite a partnership with Keane, Landon Donovan's role in LA has diminished this season. He looked tired and lethargic in spells - and his 13th minute miss left everyone aghast - so maybe the time is right for him to step aside.
"It's just been a long two years. For all of us. It's not a woe-is-me story, but I have to listen to my heart and my gut, and right now my gut says to get away for awhile. I had a really nice moment [during the Cup celebrations] where my sister [Tristan, his twin] just had a baby, and she got to come down on the field, and he was sleeping on her, It sort of puts it all in perspective and makes me realize I want to be close to my family for awhile, and I can figure out the soccer part later."
But with Donovan stepping away, Keane can take on the mantle he leaves behind. Whether or not the LA striker goes out on loan during the offseason remains to be seen, but he spearheaded the Galaxy to MLS Cup and ended the game and the season in scoring fashion from the penalty spot. Keane was confident at half time that his side could pull off the comeback, and he told them just that.
"You should have seen us at halftime. We were fine. Just kind of catching our breath, getting a little bit reorganized and understanding that the first 15 minutes of that second half, we had to keep ourselves in the game. I told [the team] at halftime, 'We get the first goal, we'll win the game.'"
After the break Keane was certainly fired up, two disallowed goals, plenty of surging runs at the heart of Houston's defense and a final clinical goal signaled the end to a great first full-season in MLS for LA's talismanic striker.
Keane's role as a leader has grown so much over the closing months of the season, that LA might not miss Donovan and Beckham too much: Keano's taken up the mantle as the leading man in LA.
Two of MLS' most respected and successful coaches locked horns on Saturday - but it was Bruce Arena who left with the prize.
The boss from Brooklyn had one big decision to make before the game, Rookie Tommy Meyer had been deputizing well for the injured A.J. DeLaGarza, but the latter was back fit. Arena decide to stay with center back Meyer and it worked. And Arena's decision to include Beckham and Juninho in the center worked superbly: the pair passed Houston into submission with Moffat being withdrawn as he couldn't get near either of them.
But, initially at least, Kinnear's team gave as good as they got. Carr was causing plenty of problems and Brad Davis was getting on the ball and probing the Dynamo into action. But Houston created few clear-cut chances in the first half, a very early snap shot aside.
Kinnear will be disappointed with the manner in which Houston conceded the equalizer and the penalty that led to game-winner. Both times Houston were beaten in the air from a long ball lofted in from a wide area. Against Sporting KC and D.C. United in the playoffs they faced numerous similar challenges and passed with flying colors. But when it mattered most Houston's sound defensive core crumbled.
"I think this year is different from last year. To be honest I don't know whether I want to cry or throw up. We played well. Last year you can hold your hand up and say we really didn't get it going. We played well today. We gave ourselves a chance to win the game. That's the tough part."