Heading into the Pan-Pacific Championship, the smiling faces of Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David Beckham and Houston Dynamo forward Brian Ching made them the tournament's de facto ambassadors. Beckham filled the role of international superstar, while Hawaii native Ching played the part of local boy done good.
But as each player walked off the field following their respective matches on Wednesday, their moods looked decidedly different. The Dynamo took apart A-League side Sydney FC 3-0, with Ching setting up two of the goals. Earlier in the evening, the Galaxy fell to Gamba Osaka by a 1-0 score that flattered Los Angeles.
The latter match was a prime example of how a man who appears to have everything doesn't always get what he wants. When Beckham wasn't watching passes sail over his head, he was forced to view his teammates making a hash of his pinpoint deliveries.
The Galaxy midfielder managed to keep his emotions in check for most of the night, although there were some subtle signs of his frustration; a faint slump of the shoulders one moment, a hint of a slow burn the next. It wasn't until Osaka forward Lucas Severino caught Beckham with a late challenge in the second half that the Englishman's intensity was displayed in all its glory, as he and his right index finger got in the face of the Brazilian.
That was about the only element of the Galaxy's game that was in regular-season form, but fortunately for Los Angeles, the match featured several players who probably won't be seeing the field much this year. Forwards Carlos Ruiz and Landon Donovan were rendered unavailable due to injury, leaving the likes of Ely Allen, Edson Buddle and Bryan Jordan to squander some solid, if not clear-cut, opportunities.
The defense wasn't much better, especially in a first half that saw Gamba Osaka threaten to run away with the match. The reigning Japanese League Cup-holder was given plenty of time in midfield to hit long balls over the top, an approach that seemed to flummox the Galaxy's back-line defenders, as Osaka continually got in behind them.
It was from just such an attack that Osaka scored the only goal of the match, with Baré outracing Galaxy defender Troy Roberts to a long pass and hammering his shot past Steve Cronin after just three minutes. From that moment on, only the goalkeeping of Cronin and Osaka's lack of familiarity with the speedy surface kept L.A. within touching distance.
Los Angeles vs. Sydney Honolulu
11 p.m. ET (ESPN360)
The Galaxy did show some improvement in the second half, with rookie defenders Julian Valentin and Sean Franklin doing much to firm up the Los Angeles defense. That said, the Galaxy's attackers never looked capable of conjuring up an equalizer, no matter how close they got to the Osaka goal.
Of course, (all together now) it's only preseason, making it the perfect opportunity for Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit to see how the younger players on the roster measure up. The play of Valentin and Franklin was encouraging, but it's clear that developing the team's depth, hamstrung by having nearly half of its salary cap taken up by three players, will pose an immense challenge to the Dutchman.
As for Houston coach Dominic Kinnear, he has no such concerns. While Gullit is still laying the foundation for his side, Kinnear is left to do some minor redecorating following his championship team's back-to-back MLS Cup wins in 2006 and 2007. Given his team's performance against Sydney, the early signs are that his work looks good.
Much has been made about how the offseason departures of Joseph Ngwenya and Nate Jaqua have decimated Houston's forward line. But while the Dynamo do need to add some depth in that area, their midfield looks more than capable of taking up the slack.
Dwayne De Rosario opened the scoring in the 27th minute with one of his trademark long-distance blasts. Stewart Holden, who could be on the verge of a breakout season, added a second just a minute later.
But the sight of Chris Wondolowski scoring the Dynamo's third just before halftime probably brought the biggest smile to Kinnear's face. The second forward job alongside Ching is Wondolowski's to lose, especially after scoring consistently in the Reserve League last year. And while doubt still remains as to whether the Chico State product can deliver on a consistent basis, his authoritative finish after being put through by Ching should solidify his hold on the position.
As for the rest of the Dynamo's game, their defense, bolstered by the acquisition of Bobby Boswell, appears to have picked up where it left off last year. Even with Best XI defender Eddie Robinson getting the night off, Houston's defense looked composed throughout.
Saturday's final against Osaka should provide a sterner test than Sydney; a disappointing finish in the A-League season, plus the absence of injured midfielder Juninho, seemed to rob Sydney of energy. In particular, the sight of the powerful Baré going up against Houston's back line should make for an interesting matchup, as will Osaka's other Brazilian attacker, Lucas Severino, going up against Richard Mulrooney.
The third-place match will see the Galaxy take on Sydney in a rematch of November's friendly which saw L.A. lose 5-3, with midfielder Kevin Harmse getting sent off. Beckham delivered a solid performance on that occasion. The question is whether his teammates can do the same on Saturday.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.