When the MLS champion Houston Dynamo faces J-League champion Gamba Osaka in Saturday's Pan-Pacific Championship final, the match won't just be a chance to see how two leagues stack up against each other -- it also could determine the future of this new competition.
The tournament has allowed us to see teams from three different leagues match up against each other, while also providing an opportunity for the Houston Dynamo to win the first of what the team hopes will be several trophies in 2008.
Watching the Dynamo dismantle Sydney FC, one of Australia's top teams (and not far removed from the end of its own season), made it easy to forget that Thursday's victory was Houston's first game of the year. The sharpness of the team's attack and organization of its defense was on a level you would expect at midseason rather than in February.
Houston knows it doesn't have the luxury of waiting until April to find its form, not with the CONCACAF Champions Cup set to begin in three weeks, and a potential Champions Cup semifinal matchup against Mexican champion Atlante awaiting at the start of April. The memory of last year's disappointing Champions Cup semifinal loss to Pachuca is still fresh for the Dynamo, and Thursday's dismantling of Sydney FC suggests that Houston is well ahead of its 2007 schedule.
Los Angeles vs. Sydney Honolulu
11 p.m. ET (ESPN360)
The desire for being sharper earlier in the year has led Houston to schedule a series of exhibitions against D.C. United, Toronto FC and Chivas USA in the beginning of March, but beating MLS opponents is old hat for the Dynamo. Nothing will prepare Houston for the rigors of a heavy international schedule in 2008 like facing a sharp Gamba Osaka squad that is just a week away from starting its own J-League regular season in Japan.
Unlike Gamba, Sydney didn't have much motivation heading into the PPC. Fresh from the disappointing end of its own A-League season, Sydney's players couldn't really be blamed for looking more forward to the offseason than this contrived tournament in Hawaii. Other then some slight flashes of the skill that gave Sydney one of the best offenses in Australia, Sydney just had no answers for the Dynamo.
Gamba, which thoroughly outplayed an overmatched Los Angeles Galaxy squad, will provide a much tougher test. Brazilian striker Baré had a field day against the Galaxy's patchwork defense and will provide a good challenge for the Houston central defense tandem of Bobby Boswell and Patrick Ianni.
His teammate and fellow Brazilian Lucas, who got into a heated exchange with David Beckham on Thursday, had a relatively quiet first game, but he does have the goal-scoring capability to punish Houston if it focuses too much on stopping Baré.
The key will be the ability of Houston's midfield to cut off the pinpoint long passes that Gamba Osaka used to pick apart Los Angeles and put Baré and Lucas into dangerous positions. That shouldn't be a problem for a Houston midfield with considerably better defensive qualities than the midfield Los Angeles put on the field Thursday.
The better challenge for Houston will come when its offense tries to duplicate Thursday's three-goal flurry against Sydney. The Gamba back line faced few serious threats from the Galaxy, but captain Satoshi Yamaguchi and company will face more dangerous weapons than the Galaxy showed. Dwayne De Rosario, Brian Ching and Stuart Holden all looked dangerous against Sydney and could prove too much for a Gamba team that is missing several key starters.
Shorthanded or not, Gamba will provide the type of challenge Houston needs at this time of year. Will a Houston victory validate Major League Soccer as a competitive league? It can, particularly if Houston dominates Gamba Osaka the way it outplayed Sydney. More than validate MLS, a Dynamo victory would stamp Houston as a worthy MLS champion and give the Dynamo confidence heading into the rest of the year as it attempts to add some international silverware to the two MLS Cup titles in its trophy case.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.