Five key factors that helped LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo set up a repeat of last year's MLS Cup final
The 2012 MLS Cup final, just a few miles from Hollywood, is a sequel to the 2011 event. And in true Tinseltown fashion, the road to LA Galaxy vs Houston Dynamo II features more than a twist or two in the telling.
The main protagonists were down and out during 2012. They struggled in the early part of the season but just as in any good movie, pivotal moments turned their campaigns around. Here are five key factors that helped LA and Houston reach the MLS Cup final.
LA might be the cup holders but their title defense couldn't have started any worse. Just three wins (two of those against Portland) from their first 14 games left LA languishing towards the bottom of the Western standings. Fingers were pointed at the three DPs, Bruce Arena's offseason acquisitions were called into question and a demoralizing Concacaf Champions League exit to Toronto FC gave the impression of the end of an era for David Beckham's Galaxy. But then the 2011 MLS defender of the year, Omar Gonzalez, returned and LA came roaring back.
After he tore his ACL in his first training session of an offseason loan with FC Nürnberg in January 2012, Gonzalez's absence from the backline was a key factor in LA's poor start. In the four months since the Texan returned, LA have improved dramatically: he started the last 12 games of the regular season and LA kept clean sheets in six, after keeping three in the previous 22. At just 24, Gonzalez commands the back line. However, such is his dominance of MLS forwards that his days in the US may be numbered – unless LA offer designated-player money in order to fend off interest from European clubs.
It would be a worthwhile investment. If LA are to shut out Houston, like they did in the 2011 final, Gonzalez will be at the heart of it.
A humbling European Championship for Robbie Keane and the Republic of Ireland may have focused the striker's efforts. Ignominy in Poland was followed by a storming second half of the MLS season from the Irishman. Keane scored 13 he took his impressive form into the playoffs, where another five goals came in five games. Indeed, Keane has scored one sixth of all the playoff goals scored so far in 2012.
"Robbie, since he's come back from the European Championship, has been the best player in the league. He scores big goals, he's competitive, he's bought into MLS, he likes LA, he's a great leader on our team and when the whistle blows, he's ready to play. He's a great competitor."
After successive 1-0 away wins to start the season, normal service seem to have resumed for Dominic Kinnear's Houston Dynamo after their narrow defeat in MLS Cup 2011. Think again. What followed was a roller-coaster season. Any team forced to play seven games away from home to start off a campaign would struggle, of course, though there was a reason for that – a very good one.
The team's new stadium was being finished. Since the BBVA Compass Stadium opened, the Dynamo has yet to be beaten there. Kicking off their 2012 home schedule against DC United on May 12, there was a renewed air of expectation: finally Houston had their own stadium and had arrived as one of MLS big boys.
Houston's staunch defensive identity has flourished in the new home: only FC Dallas tied more games than Houston's 11. But as the campaign wore on Houston's attacking instincts grew too, with new Honduran DP Boniek Garcia stamping his mark on MLS. Add the veteran playmaker Brad Davis, the lively Calen Carr and a burgeoning Will Bruin and suddenly Houston was awash with attacking options. Buoyed on by a vibrant home crowd, the Orange Men attacked with renewed vigor and squeezed into the playoffs, their home form getting them over the line. Only DC, New York and San Jose scored more goals at home. The Dynamo now have a remarkable 30-game unbeaten run at home, dating back to 18 June 2011.
One player arrived back in Texas this summer with a point to prove. After being with the Dynamo during the relocation from San Jose and then flourishing in the MLS Cup wins of '06 and '07, it's as if Ricardo Clark never left Houston for the greener pastures of the Bundesliga.
The Houston defender Bobby Boswell summed up Clark's importance for the team:
"He's one of the guys that makes the defenders look good because he does all that work in front of you. He's really good at filling lanes and stuff so your approach to defending can be a little different. Clark was a huge reason that the teams in the past got there and he did all the dirty work to get them there but didn't necessarily get to reap the benefits of the finals. Those are definitely his trophies just as much as anyone else's. Hopefully, he can be one of those key factors that change the result from last year to this year."
Clark is in a race against time to be fit for the final. When Houston won those two MLS Cups, he didn't play in either final, due to injury and suspension. How Clark would love to make this one and lift the trophy for a third time. The Dynamo has a much better chance of doing so with the USMNT midfielder in the side. Clark and Adam Moffat allow Davis, Bruin, Carr and Garcia to get forward and not worry about defending. When Clark is missing that breaks down, chief firefighter Moffat gets inundated with calls and nobody's there to help. The Dynamo need Clark to be fit if they're going to win MLS Cup 2012.
Houston's head coach has had tremendous success in his MLS coaching career – five conference finals in seven seasons and four MLS Cup appearances with Houston bear this out. Yet this season his philosophy has had to be adapted. When many would have stuck to the tactics they have always used, Kinnear has mixed things up.
Losing defensive lynchpin Geoff Cameron to Stoke City midway through the season wasn't ideal, but slowly Houston was developing into a much more attack-minded and offensively competent unit. Bruin delivered goals, Davis remained fit and Carr and Garcia add pace and power to the attack.
But getting the balance right is crucial, and Kinnear and his coaching staff have maintained Houston's defensive capabilities while expanding the offensive weapons. The Jamaica defender Jermaine Taylor has been key to Houston's defensive success and he believes that the team who change defense into attack more quickly will prevail in MLS Cup 2012.
"The team with quicker reaction in terms of turning over the ball and trying to get it back, that's what's going to count. Once you don't have the ball, you have to defend, so that's where the transition sets in. Once you don't have it, you want to try and get it back as quick as possible and get it down and play."
Houston have made huge strides in playing further up the pitch as quickly as they can in 2012, and no formation change has been pivotal to that. You see, Kinnear isn't a big believer in formations – he believes more in getting the right players out on the pitch to do the job. Players like Corey Ashe have shone, with Ashe and Kofi Sarkodie adding defensive solidity to their speedy full-back play. Kinnear has helped develop Ashe into a solid defender and LA head coach Arena is a big admirer:
"Corey's developed into one of the best left-backs in Major League Soccer. He's physically strong and physically set to deal with any issues in his space and he's good going forward. What I've seen out of Corey over the last two to three years is that he is now a lot more consistent."
And that's testament to playing under Kinnear. Ashe was a lightning-quick winger when he came into the league. Under Kinnear's system he has been able to fulfill his potential by attacking when he can, but adhering to the Dynamo's No1 rule: defend first.
Houston's defense is sure to be put under intense pressure from Beckham, Landon Donovan, Keane and co on Saturday. Just like it was in MLS Cup 2011. But last season Houston didn't deliver any attacking threat and after Donovan scored they never looked like getting back into the game.
It seems as if that spurred Kinnear on. He has delicately adapted Houston's style into a more offensive one. Maybe Houston's lack of attacking creativity, which helped define the 2011 cup final, has been a key factor in the changes which have given the team another shot in 2012.