I don’t normally do match reports but cup finals of a certain distinction deserve some close scrutinizing. Living in Los Angeles, I found myself at the MLS Cup Final between the LA Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo, the same two teams who contested the final last season. Last year the final played out to a terribly dull 1-0 win for Los Angeles but this year had much more hype because it was marking the end of an era in American soccer. David Beckham announced before the match that he would be leaving the Galaxy after the final, and there was also the possibility that American poster-boy Landon Donovan could pull-a-Cantona and retire at 30.
Both teams lined up in 4-4-2 formations but used them to different effect, which had a telling outcome on the match. Houston played far narrower with their central midfield duo Ricardo Clark and Adam Moffatt playing far deeper to protect their defense against the potent Galaxy attack. This allowed David Beckham a lot of room in his central deep lying playmaker role with Juninho covering defensive duties, although he is pretty strong going forward as well. Houston’s wide players didn’t remain very wide for much of the match either. Brad Davis on the left came centrally often enough to be the Dynamo’s main playmaker while Boniek Garcia on the right found some success making cutting runs into the middle while forward Calen Carr would make the opposite run to the flank. The Galaxy on the other hand stayed very wide throughout with Mike Magee and Christian Wilhelmsson hugging the touchlines and even the duo up front of Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan making runs to the sidelines. This may not have been an outright attacking tactic from the outset as Keane regularly likes to drift left and Donovan as the deep lying forward found himself on the right because of the ineffectiveness of Wilhelmsson who was the worst player on the pitch that afternoon and found himself substituted in the second half.
Both teams’ right backs loved getting forward as Franklin regularly did for Los Angeles, and for me the surprising selection of Sarkodie for Houston. It is not that Sarkodie didn’t warrant a place in the starting line up for the Dynamo it is just that Andre Hainault had held that position for Houston for the past couple seasons and had become one of the strongest defenders in MLS with a good eye for goal scoring in many crucial fixtures. Kofie Sarkodie’s play in this match both showed his strengths and weaknesses as with Garcia cutting inside Sarkodie flew forward down the wing regularly beating Mike Magee and getting into strong attacking positions. He nearly scored the first goal of the game but also was almost at fault for allowing the major scoring opportunity for LA. With Sarkodie so far up the pitch, the Galaxy broke downfield with Keane and Donovan running 2 v 1 resulting in Donovan inexplicably missing the net when one-on-one with goalkeeper Tally Hall. I am unsure as to how Hainault lost his position in the starting line up but if he doesn’t get his place back in Houston, he could slot into any team in MLS without any difficulty.
This attacking movement caught the Galaxy out at first and Houston were controlling the game for the first 15 minutes surprising everyone at the Home Depot Center. LA were left to hit them back on the counter and it was after a couple of successful counter attacks that resulted in strong scoring opportunities that Houston took their foot off the gas a little bit and played more conservatively. This worked to LA’s advantage and they found themselves working their way into the game. David Beckham, in his last MLS fixture, distributed the ball extremely well as only Beckham can. Playing in a central role he looks like his old club-mate Paul Scholes, who is also a great passer, slow of foot, which can make him slightly vulnerable defensively, but still tenacious in the tackle when given the opportunity. Beckham’s distribution was getting his team back into the match but it seemed at first as if his teammates weren’t up to the task of finishing. As mentioned before Donovan missed the target when through on goal and not long after Mike Magee flubbed a header in the 6 yard box after a great cross from Beckham. Add to that Wilhelmsson’s poor play and sad diving in miserable attempts at free kicks, the Galaxy were back in the match but couldn’t quite find themselves in the driver’s seat score wise.
With the Galaxy starting to control things a bit more, the first half lost its exciting edge and started to get a bit more dull like last year’s final as both teams defended the other well and became more cautious. It was the movement of Calen Carr up front for Houston that finally opened things up. Carr was constantly running wide and finding himself in the channels for through balls from his teammates and this was the main cause for concern from the Galaxy point of view. The Dynamo’s other striker, big Will Bruin, was nowhere to be seen and was absent for most of the match. Finally, minutes before half time, Moffatt played a ball in behind – the way Beckham had been doing for his team – with Carr getting on the end of it and scoring the opening goal of the match to give Houston a surprising 1-0 lead going into half time. It was only LA’s poor finishing that had them behind, but they would have to start the second half with better boots on.
In the second half, it was apparent that the Galaxy had a very clear objective in mind: pump the ball into the box, whether from open play or set pieces. With both Beckham and Juninho excelling with their service it only had to be a matter of time until the equalizer came as the game started to play out entirely in the Dynamo half. Keane had a goal wrongly disallowed but he was very lively after the break and was a threat any time the ball came near him. LA’s central defender Omar Gonzalez was the usual large target for set pieces but it was a hand ball following a Beckham free kick that lead to a penalty which Landon Donovan duly slotted home. Gonzalez however continued to be a menace in the air in both boxes. Los Angeles looked to make yet another post season come back as they had to do in the previous rounds against unfancied Vancouver and the league’s top team in San Jose. Donovan’s goal made him the MLS’s top goal scorer in both regular season and playoff action, and it did loads in restoring his confidence after the first half miss. In his MLS playoff career Donovan now has 22 goals in 34 games, although 6 of his last 7 were from the penalty spot.
A big turning point in the match was when Calen Carr had to come off injured after colliding with Omar Gonzalez. Carr was not only on the end of every ball Houston sent forward but also did a job defensively on the towering Gonzalez when he came forward for set pieces. He was replaced by Macoumba Kandji, but Carr’s absence was the main reason Houston fell apart in the second half. With all the pre-match talk of Houston star Brad Davis being able to play in this year’s final after missing out last season’s due to injury, it was Calen Carr who was the difference maker for the Dynamo. After he left the match, Houston had little going forward and were pushed back by the surging Galaxy.
It was at this time that the tactical changes began as Houston needed to do something to change the game in Carr’s absence. The Galaxy had removed Wilhelmsson and replaced him with Edson Buddle up front and Landon Donovan moving back to the right wing position. With the Galaxy still in a 4-4-2 shape, Houston manager Greg Kinnear decided to counter that finally with 15 minutes to go with a 3-4-1-2 attacking formation. Giles Barnes replaced Moffatt in the center and set himself up in an advanced attacking role while Brian Ching replaced Sarkodie and played as another striker up front. This meant that Corey Ashe had to play as a central defender (which Hainault would have been better at), Brad Davis came into the middle of the park and Kandji pushed out wide left. This was a smart move by the Houston manager but the Galaxy were already reaching their top gear. Omar Gonzalez had a goal disallowed, which should have stood before finally and deservedly getting on the score sheet.
Robbie Keane became the main man after Houston’s formation switch as with no right back to pick him up, he had loads of space on the left. Houston’s center back Bobby Boswell tried to shuffle over and block his runs, but Keane was too quick and in too much space and looked like he was bound to score a goal. He was finally rewarded with a penalty at the end of the match, which he converted and gave the LA Galaxy the 3-1 win. Houston did well, but the injury to Carr was devastating to their overall game. In the end it was Beckham’s passing and the attacking threat of Keane in the second half that determined the game, with Los Angeles’ biggest stars shining bright. Man of the match could have gone to defender Omar Gonzalez however, and one must reckon that he should now be in contention for the U.S. Men’s National Team, which has ignored him for too long. Klinsmann was most certainly watching this match. Bruce Arena’s Galaxy are now the first team to win back-to-back MLS Cups after his DC United team in the late ‘90s, but will now bid adieu to the game’s biggest star in David Beckham. Where he will end up next is for later speculation, but LA will hope to be able to convince Landon Donovan not to go for the early retirement that seems to beckon him. They are however now linked with Brazil star Kaka, and with Keane going nowhere LA should be the favourites again next season.