David Beckham will say goodbye to MLS after the Cup final but how much longer will Landon Donovan and Brian Ching remain at LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo
The talking is over then. Friday was the last day before MLS Cup, with both sides carrying out final practices in the very un-South Californian rain and speaking to media prior to Saturday's game. For the most part we got to witness two sides very familiar with each other describing their mutual respect (and relieved to finally be done with David Beckham questions).
So another year, another round of speculation on Beckham's future and another potentially rain-sodden final at this stadium between LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo. Will we get the same outcome as last year's tight Galaxy victory?
Houston Dynamo's veteran striker Brian Ching, for one, begs to differ with any notion that the Dynamo are here to make up the numbers. As the Houston players trooped off after their final practice session, he stops to state his belief that this is a very different Houston side than the one that struggled for a Plan B with catalyst Brad Davis out injured in 2011's final:
"This year we have more speed up front, with Will (Bruin) up top - and I think we'll cause them a lot more problems. Omar Gonzalez is a big part of LA's recovery in the second half of the season and I think it's going to be a big task for us to get around him. He wins everything in the air, he's quick and has good positioning — but having said that, our midfield is a lot better this year, so the service is going to be a lot better to our forwards."
Ching could scarcely have expected to have been here at MLS Cup in January. "At the start of the year did I think I'd be standing here in a Dynamo uniform? No." Left unprotected by his club in the one-off expansion draft for Montreal's entry into the league, he was snatched up by the Impact and after threatening to retire, reluctantly made his way up to Canada before the Dynamo managed a deal to bring him back. He's appeared sporadically this year, and just like Beckham (at least in America) and possibly Donovan, the final may mark his last game as a player, though surely he'll remain on the Dynamo staff. As for the prospect of his friend Donovan retiring, as the LA man has hinted at continually:
We joked about it in texts throughout the year. But if it's his last game, what an amazing career. ..if he retires then definitely reflect on it after, because he definitely deserves a ton of accolades for everything he's done for US soccer and the league.
For Donovan's part, he wasn't talking about his own fate, but like Ching, he had a lot to say about the midfield battle:
These are certainly two very good midfields going against each other. Depending on how Houston line up tomorrow, they've got four or five very good players with a lot of experience. Certainly adding Ricardo (Clark) has helped, then there's no question Boniek Garcia gives them a different element. On our side we think we're very good through the middle of the field. David - his contributions are obvious; Juninho has now earned the respect of a lot of people around the league; guys like Mikey Stephens have done a good job over the years; Marcelo Sarvas has been fantastic; and then our wide guys have been great too...We're confident in our midfield.
Midfield battles aside, and most neutrals agree that's where the game will be won or lost, Donovan himself will likely be paired up front with Robbie Keane tomorrow. Keane is aiming to cap a great second half of the season with his second championship in less than 18 months, but acknowledges a debt to the vision of his strike partner:
Landon was playing on the wing mostly last year, but this year we've played a lot up together 90% of the season...We're always looking to play each other in and I think if you look at most of my goals this season, they're obviously down to Landon.
It's true, but it's perhaps what you'd expect Keane to say, as he rarely strays far from the script. Perhaps it's that that prompted a Scottish journalist to try and throw him with a question about his boyhood Gaelic football days in Ireland. For a second Keane (and most of the American journalists), looked stunned by the question — "I didn't see this question coming to be honest with you" — but by the time he'd gamely ventured "mental toughness' he had warmed to his theme and began to detail the untenable weekly timetable of a 15 year old Keane's regular commute: "Monday was training; Tuesday, Gaelic; Wednesday, football..." By the time he's done, a small pocket of America is now intimate with the infrastructural challenges of getting to Crumlin and the original questioner may have been regretting his enquiry.
Still, it doesn't stop another wag deciding to reference the habit of high profile MLS players spending off season loan spell in Europe, a practice made famous by a certain soon-to-be-ex-Galaxy player. Had Arena thought about going on a three month loan period himself?:
Any suggestions of where I could go? I think if we don't win this game tomorrow they're going to be loaning me out for longer than three months...
If there's levity as well as rain in the air, it's because it's clear that nothing much said now will have time to grow and be spun into bulletin board material for coaches to fire up their teams with. One could argue that in Houston's case the last couple of weeks since Beckham's announcement have been one long motivational tool, but with the final hours away, you're unlikely to find a player on either team who needs motivating. Time to talk on the field.