The Western Conference Finals was a long, hard slog between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo. With an 8:30 starting time to accommodate ESPN2’s college football schedule, two blackouts that interrupted play in each half, and a half hour of overtime, the Galaxy did not trudge off the pitch with their Western Conference trophy until almost midnight. Some thoughts from the Home Depot Center:
Houston did everything they wanted to do, except score. The Dynamo came in with a plan – don’t give David Beckham or Landon Donovan any room to maneuver, and use speed create opportunities to score. They executed their plan well, especially in the defensive half. Beckham struggled to find time on the ball all evening, and that cutting pass that has been so effective lately was just not there. Donovan was invisible for large parts of the game, and when he had the ball at his feet, it was never near goal and all his passing lanes were cut off. Ricardo Clarke was up for the game, and was full of hustle and challenge all night. It all worked well.
But Berhalter, Gonzalez, and the crossbar kept Houston out. Greg Berhalter and Omar Gonzalez were just terrific anchoring the Galaxy back line. Between them, they rarely put a foot wrong, and Houston’s Brian Ching and Dominic Oduro were denied service for large stretches of the game. Oduro, who has been NASA hot the past month, was a non-entity and subbed out in the 72nd minute. Ching’s one decent chance came shortly after that when his header from a Brian Mullan cross was pawed by Donovan Ricketts onto the cross bar and out. Gonzalez in particular was outstanding. After recovering from his nightmare playoff debut against Chivas USA two weeks ago, he has come out focused and confident, and the Galaxy have now gone 250 playoff minutes without conceding a goal. Other than the 20 minute flurry of possession that the Dynamo enjoyed in the second half, chances were at a premium for Houston.
Fleet of foot Alan Gordon created the Galaxy chances. Most of the time, watching Alan Gordon dribble the ball is like watching Andre the Giant do the Charleston. It ain’t pretty. But when Alan Gordon came in six minutes into the first overtime, his fresh legs looked like Maradona’s compared to a clearly gassed Rico Clark. A few minutes after coming on, Gordon received the ball 20 yards from the box and turned on Clark who could only grab Gordon and take him down. The subsequent Beckham free kick was headed by Gonzalez into the mix and found its way to Berhalter who stabbed it into the net for the critical first goal. Ten minutes later, Gordon took a breakaway ball into the box and again jigged past Clark who could only muster enough energy to stab out a hopeful leg that sent Gordon straight into the turf. The stone-cold penalty was converted by Donovan, and that ended the match as a competitive encounter.
Was that the real MLS Cup game? Many observers would say that Houston and Los Angeles were the two best teams left in the playoffs. Combined, they have four wins, three draws and a loss against Real Salt Lake and Chicago this season. Both western teams have that critical combination of experienced veterans and rising stars, and the both build their attacks from the back with a solid defense distributing the ball forward. Both teams have successful coaches who know how to prepare teams for big games. With LA booking its flight to Seattle for the MLS Cup, they are going to give either Real Salt Lake or Chicago nothing but problems to plan around, and will feel that anything less than a victory will be a failure.
Final open quiz question – If the Galaxy win the MLS Cup, will Beckham have become the most successful club player in history? He will have won top honors in this third different league (EPL with Manchester United, La Liga with Real Madrid and MLS with the Galaxy)and will also have won the Champions league (with Manchester United). Has any other player ever done that? None springs to my mind. Maradona won two leagues (with Boca Juniors and Napoli) and Zidane won two leagues and the Champions League (with Juve and Real Madrid). I can think of a few other Zelig-like players like Geo Van Bronckhorst who won in three leagues (with Rangers, Arsenal and Barca) but I can’t think of anyone who has won in three leagues and the Champions league over their career.