Sunday's victory over Chivas USA was the culmination of a long wait for many members of the Los Angeles Galaxy. It was the team's first playoff triumph since claiming their last MLS Cup in 2005, a victory that only Landon Donovan, Alan Gordon, Todd Dunivant, and assistant coach Cobi Jones were around to enjoy. David Beckham's inaugural playoff win came about two years later than anyone originally planned. And coach Bruce Arena tasted a postseason victory for the first time since the 1998 Eastern Conference final.
But the reality for L.A. is that nothing has been won aside from some bragging rights over their neighbors. And now an even more difficult task awaits them. The Houston Dynamo is a side a few percentage points better than Chivas USA in almost every department. The Dynamo's defense has been stingier over the course of the season, and they have more weapons in attack.
Of course, L.A. excels in these areas as well, and they're hoping that the creature comforts of the Home Depot Center will provide them with the necessary edge on Friday, especially since the Dynamo are more accustomed to the tighter confines of Robertson Stadium.
|MLS Cup playoffs
L.A. vs. Houston
11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
Chicago vs. RSL
Toyota Park Stadium, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET
"I think we're fortunate enough to play Houston on a big field, and hopefully that works to our advantage," said L.A. forward Edson Buddle. "They're still a good team, no matter what pitch we play on, but it's going to be a physical game also, so it's going to be a fight to the end."
At first glance, L.A. seems ill-equipped to take advantage of the HDC's vast expanses. Only Donovan would appear to have the kind of pace that can pull the Dynamo's defense out of its disciplined shape. But while speed kills, so can a defense-splitting pass.
"The biggest thing with [L.A.] is you have to keep your shape in attack," said Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad. "You've got guys like Beckham with the ability to hit a 40-yard ball, and you have to make sure you're organized defensively, otherwise he'll punish you with Landon making his runs."
The adage that the ball travels faster than any player was on display last Sunday, when a pinpoint, long pass from Beckham found Donovan in plenty of space, which in turn led to Mike Magee earning a penalty that ultimately won the game.
And Beckham is by no means the only player who can hurt opponents with a killer ball. As Houston coach Dominic Kinnear put it, "[L.A.] has a lot of guys going forward who understand the game and can pick the right pass," with Magee, Chris Klein and Eddie Lewis among those who can have an impact.
That will require the Houston midfield, especially Ricardo Clark, to pressure those players quickly, especially in transition.
It will also be interesting to see how the Galaxy try to go at left back Wade Barrett, who will likely replace the suspended Mike Chabala in the lineup. Barrett has plenty of experience, but has seen his role reduced this season, and L.A. will be sure to see if he shows any rust.
Yet the wide open spaces L.A. is so used to exploiting can just as easily be their undoing, especially now that the blistering speed of Dominic Oduro has become a staple of the Dynamo's attack. Oduro only cracked the starting lineup for good in Houston's season-ending 3-2 win over Chivas, a game in which he scored. And while he failed to find a similar breakthrough in the playoff series against Seattle, he did plenty to test a back line that is far more mobile than L.A.'s central tandem of Gregg Berhalter and Omar Gonzalez.
"[Oduro's speed] does cause concerns for our back line," said Arena on Tuesday's conference call. "Our movement as a group has to be right, we have to cut down some of the service, and just realize the qualities that he brings to the game as well as the qualities that Brian Ching brings to the game and make the appropriate adjustments."
Oduro remains very much an unpolished gem, with Kinnear remarking, "[Oduro's] pace is great, and it does stretch the field, but it's also important that the timing of the runs and the passes are all going together." Oduro also has to make sure there is variety to his runs; otherwise the tactic that Seattle's Tyrone Marshall adopted, one that simply had him dropping deep off the Houston forward as the game progressed, will be duplicated. That said, Oduro's inclusion beats trying to match the power of Berhalter and Gonzalez, who have chewed up plenty of opposition strikers this season.
The success of L.A.'s defensive duo, as well as the brilliance of Donovan and Beckham is what the Galaxy has ridden to this point. Now we'll if it gets them into their first MLS Cup final in four years.
Chicago Fire versus Real Salt Lake
Last year, both Chicago and Real Salt Lake bore the label of beaten conference finalists. In 2009, one of these teams is guaranteed to take the next step to the MLS Cup final. But which one?
Answering that question can be accomplished only with the help of an electron microscope, so evenly matched are the two sides. That's especially true of the respective midfields. In Chicago's Marco Pappa and RSL's Javier Morales, both teams have players that can create danger with their running and passing. Real's Kyle Beckerman and the Fire's Logan Pause both anchor their respective midfields with a warrior mentality. Chicago's quartet is rounded out by a do-it-all type in John Thorrington and a sniper/creator in Chris Rolfe, while RSL possesses the passing artistry of Andy Williams and the tenaciousness of Will Johnson. And what they all have in common is the kind of work rate to impose their will on the opposition.
"There's definitely no cheaters in their midfield that are just going to play offense," said Beckerman. "It's going to be a lot of one-on-one battles in there, trying to see who can win. If we can come out winning [those duels], that usually turns the game to your side."
The team that prevails in the center of the park will find it easier to get the ball to their primary attacking weapons. In the case of RSL, the creativity of Morales helps exploit the searing pace of Robbie Findley, Fabian Espindola and super-sub Yura Movsisyan.
It's a weapon that Beckerman refers to as "an escape route anytime there's trouble." But it's also one that had difficulty getting into gear against Chicago during the regular season. The Fire yielded just a solitary goal against RSL in two games, and that came from defender Jamison Olave. Both of those matches occurred late in the season as well, giving Chicago head coach Denis Hamlett confidence that Real's ground attack can be contained.
"You just have to make sure you're aware of their speed, but more importantly do a good job in the middle of the field so those guys can't get the forwards the balls that they like," said Hamlett. "We've got experience in the back, and they know how to play against guys with pace."
That said, Chicago did struggle to contain New England midfielder Sainey Nyassi last Saturday, with Daniel Woolard looking every bit a player who hadn't played in several months. That might mean a recall for Mike Banner, who certainly is a quicker alternative at left back.
If the Fire's back line can defuse the threat posed by RSL's forwards, then it will likely result in getting attacking hub Cuauhtémoc Blanco more touches on the ball. The Mexican international proved against New England that even against a packed defense, he still has the necessary guile to create goals as well as score them. And his ability to find soft pockets in the opposition defense remains sharp.
This isn't news to RSL, who faced a variant of Blanco-itis in the previous round when they faced off against Columbus' Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
"They're very, very similar," said RSL manager Jason Kreis of Blanco and Schelotto. "They're both listed as forwards in their lineup, they both drop into midfield a fair amount. Both are guys that aren't 100 percent focused to the defending side of things, and that presents its own problems to be honest. It is something that you try to exploit offensively, but defensively you've got to be really switched on when the ball turns over to know exactly where that player is."
Or as Beckerman put it, "Blanco is a game-changer, no matter how old he is or how fast he can run."
But if Blanco remains the focal point of the Fire's offense, Hamlett is keenly aware that he'll need plenty of help. Forward Brian McBride is expected to play after sustaining a leg injury following a collision with New England goalkeeper Matt Reis, and his holdup play remains an important feature of Chicago's offense. Yet Hamlett is also counting on Rolfe and Pappa to reprise the attacking roles that led them to cause so many problems for New England.
"When those guys are active and mobile, it creates more space for [Blanco] and we become a multidimensional team," said Hamlett.
That assumes that Chicago will win the midfield battle, something RSL will no doubt contest until the final whistle.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.