In the first part of our 2009 MLS Cup Final preview, the Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles Galaxy players were assessed and compared, with a slight advantage being measured for the Galaxy. In this continuation of our analysis, attention is paid to the coaches and intangibles for both clubs.
The Los Angeles Galaxy was a mess during the summer of 2008. They had just lost a 3-2 decision to the San Jose Earthquakes on a late goal by Ryan Cochrane, and a very disturbed David Beckham groused to the press after the game about the team’s lack of confidence. We would later learn in Grant Wahl’s The Beckham Experiment that this was the low point for the club. The players were not communicating, and head coach Ruud Gullit was already eyeing his exit from MLS. Just weeks later, after a sweep of the dysfunctional front office, Bruce Arena was handed the reigns to the Galaxy. Biding his time following an ignominious term as leader of Red Bull New York, Arena was prepared for the spotlight that came with coaching the world’s most famous player.
While the remainder of that year continued to be a circus at The Home Depot Center, the stage was being set for a return to prominence in 2009. Arena cleaned house of those he could or would not work with, and then brought in the mid-level veterans he knew could be successful in the MLS environment. Savvy draft picks in defenders and ex-Maryland teammates Omar Gonzales and A.J. DeLaGarza contributed immediately to a 10-game stretch to start the season that saw LA lose only once. The team began to gel around their coach, and the confidence to win grew each week. Even the summer return of Beckham couldn’t derail the Galaxy this season — Arena made sure he would integrate back into the squad seamlessly — and they went on to finish atop the Western Conference. Bruce Arena brought the Galaxy from worst to first in just one season. This Sunday marks his fourth trip to the MLS Cup Final — where he won twice at the helm of DC United — and the sixth trip for the Galaxy franchise.
Meanwhile, the scene is much different in the Beehive State, where MLS playing legend Jason Kreis is in his third year in charge of Real Salt Lake. Hired shortly after retiring as a player from the club, Kreis has quickly become a respected manager around the league. When he retired early in the 2007 season, Kreis had scored 108 career goals in MLS — good for best in league history at the time. That attack-minded attitude became his trademark when it came to tactical decisions at RSL. By employing constant pressure on their opponents, Salt Lake continues to create myriad scoring opportunities. His win/lose/tie record is nothing to be excited about, but his teams have done enough to get into the playoffs the past two seasons. A near miss in last years Western Conference Finals was redeemed with passage through the Eastern Conference Championship this post season. He preaches self-belief and hard work to his charges, most exemplified by midfielder Kyle Beckerman, and a never-give-up attitude. Always considered the underdog in these playoffs, especially when it comes to road games, Kreis has employed his attack-first mentality to perfection in toppling two very tough opponents in Columbus and Chicago.
Advantage: Los Angeles Galaxy — Arena has the trophies to prove it.
There are few certainties in sports — that’s why they play the games — save for the underdog crying out for respect against a seemingly undefeatable opponent. Since the 2009 playoffs began, Real Salt Lake has worn the underdog label with aplomb. Their surprising success in reaching the MLS Cup would not have been predicted entering their final game of the season against the Colorado Rapids. With just one win in their five prior matches, RSL required a win over their Rocky Mountain rivals just to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed (after winning tiebreakers against those same Rapids and DC United) with 40 points. Their season ending form was just average, but their playoff form has risen to another level. They have all the confidence in the world after two straight road victories, and look forward to their match in Seattle.
The field and weather conditions on Sunday should help Real Salt Lake as well as their attitude. Qwest Field offers up the much maligned artificial playing surface the club may remember from their days playing on a similar field at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Utah. Additionally, the weather will be very cool, with a good chance of rain — much closer to what you’d see in their home state and not sunny Southern California.
Lastly, the inspiring story of midfielder Andy Williams’ wife’s battle against cancer has helped the team rally around the cause. Williams has continued to impress even with the weight of those personal issues, and his teammates will be eager to reward his dedication.
Down in Los Angeles, the three year soap opera of Galaxy soccer that has followed David Beckham’s historic signing reaches a more stable stage with their MLS Cup Final appearance. As mentioned earlier, LA was last in the league at the end of 2008 and looking nothing like the Super-Club that former GM Alexi Lalas imagined them to be. What the guidance of Bruce Arena and the leadership of veteran signings like Gregg Berhalter and Tony Sanneh have been able to do for the club is impressive. Sanneh in particular has been a revelation for the club, without haven’t logged very many meaningful minutes during 2009. Virtually out of the game when Arena signed him earlier this year, the veteran has brought professionalism to the club that many felt was lacking. Add in other veterans like Chris Klein and Eddie Lewis, and there is a swagger to the Galaxy’s play that was missing during three prior years of missing the post season.
And, of course, there is David Beckham. The face of MLS is on the precipice of achieving a remarkable feat in professional soccer — league championships for three different clubs in as many countries. Beckham has been often criticized for his seemingly disinterested approach to playing in the U.S., but nobody watching this post season can fault him for his efforts. His intensity on the field, sometimes viewed as a form of petulance, can lift an entire team to success. Now on the biggest stage for soccer in America, David Beckham will want to add MLS Champion to his resume.
Advantage: Los Angeles Galaxy — The Beckham Experiment will be a success.
That completes the two final categories to consider for this MLS Cup Final preview. The indicators overwhelmingly point to the Los Angeles Galaxy as the team better prepared to beat Real Salt Lake. Thus, the stage is set for the Galaxy to hoist their third MLS Championship trophy this Sunday in Seattle.