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Zenit sign Bart Simpson

The Toe Poke 3 hours ago
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Nov 15, 2009

Galaxy and RSL earn deserved spots in MLS Cup final

Bruce Arena's reclamation project is nearly complete for the L.A. Galaxy, as he'll take the media darlings from the Home Depot Center up the coast this week to face Real Salt Lake at Qwest Field in Seattle. To get things started on MLS Cup week, here are a few things we can take away from this weekend's pair of conference finals: "We're No. 8!" Stick a microphone in an MLS player's face and ask about postseason matters, and it won't be long before something spills out along the lines of "You just have to make the playoffs. Anything can happen from there." Lifted directly from the menu of beaten-to-death clichés? Yep. But ample evidence supports the sentiment. Real Salt Lake's upcoming appearance in the Nov. 22 MLS Cup final provides more of it. RSL are the second consecutive No. 8 seed to grace the final after Red Bull New York did it last year. Los Angeles was a No. 8 seed and won it all in 2005. At least Real Salt Lake deserve their place based on playoff performance. The Red Bulls' 2008 appearance defined "fluke," as they sneaked in through the back door despite getting hammered in the conference final in every way except on the scoreboard. The better sides: When the best teams of the moment line up next Sunday on the Xbox Pitch, MLS will experiment with a nighttime kickoff -- and hope for all the world that the lights stay on! Los Angeles is the class of the league currently, even if club officials can't beat the gremlins in the grid around suburban Carson, Calif. (Friday's Western Conference final finished in the wee smalls of Saturday morning around much of the country thanks to a ridiculous 11:25 p.m. ET start and two 18-minute power outages.) Houston fans may bemoan a nullified 80th-minute goal Friday. Yes, it would have been a game-changing (fortune-changing?) moment. And, yes, it was a harsh judgment against Brian Ching, who appeared to be pushed as he stumbled into A.J. DeLaGarza, eliciting a possibly dubious whistle from referee Terry Vaughn.

MLS Cup final
Nov. 22
Los Angeles versus RSL
Qwest Field
8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com

Still, the Galaxy have so much going right, especially along a back line orchestrated tighter than a Broadway chorus line. Arena's side is 8-3-3 against MLS teams since the All-Star break. It's undefeated since September and has six shutouts in eight matches since that humbling 6-3 nightmare against Dallas. Houston just couldn't release the hand brake lately with only five wins in 16 matches in all competitions in three months. (And this Luis Angel Landin thing needs some serious examination, as he obviously has located Houston's top restaurants since gaining designated player status in south Texas.) Meanwhile, Jason Kreis' side has won four in a row and is 5-1-1 since September. The current run includes a commanding, playoff-clinching win over Colorado in the season's final weekend. The Dynamo kicked Columbus around pretty good, claiming both legs of the first-round playoff series. And RSL were the better team Saturday night at Toyota Park, further banishing an abundant history of failure on the road by generating the better chances and always maintaining an edge in possession. Javier Morales and Andy Williams are priming RSL's tight passing at the moment, while Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson set the gold standard for midfield industry. A little something to keep your eye on before next Sunday's final: If you believe in mojo and hoodoo, here's a lulu for ya. Landon Donovan's skilled ways from the 12-yard spot have helped him become the United States' most decorated player. For MLS clubs, the man has been nearly unstoppable over nine years, missing just twice in 22 penalty-kick attempts. His virtuoso conversion rate (91 percent) mocks historic league rates, which hover just below 80 percent. But here's where it gets weird. Only two MLS goalkeepers have stopped Donovan from the 12-yard spot. The last to do it was Nick Rimando, who was in goal for RSL in 2007 when he turned away a Donovan spot shot. The only other MLS goalkeeper to quash a Donovan PK is Jeff Cassar, who accomplished the feat for Dallas in 2004. Cassar is now an assistant coach at -- wait for it -- Real Salt Lake. And how did RSL get by Chicago finally? On penalty kicks! If you saw Rimando in Saturday's decisive tiebreaker from sold-out Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., you know he's like some mystical guru of the PK stop. Although RSL players launched a couple into the night, Rimando rescued his club with three enormous saves on seven Fire tiebreaker shots. The best was on John Thorrington's well-struck effort, which Rimando stretched and turned away in highly athletic fashion. "He's a beast at PKs," Beckerman told Fox Soccer Channel after Saturday's match. "He always has been." Just something to keep in mind in case Donovan steps to the spot during the Cup final. Beckham's fighting spirit: No one can accuse David Beckham of not fighting for his shirt. Or, maybe all his pugilistic bent of late is a calculated strategy to relaunch Brand Beckham as an MMA guy. More than once this year we've seen Beckham channeling his inner Chuck Liddell, whipped up into frothy confrontational mode. League officials chose to ignore when he grabbed an FC Dallas player by the throat after that humbling September loss. Then, last week, he was front and center as a donnybrook nearly broke out -- one initiated by Chivas USA's (former) coach Preki, oddly enough. After Friday's triumph, there was Beckham once again ready to raise his mitts. When he should have been reveling in the moment, hugging and back-slapping like his teammates, Beckham chose to not-so-playfully slap Dynamo striker Dominic Oduro on the arm and then stick a finger in his face. In short order, Galaxy players and officials had to separate the pair. It's not just after matches that Beckham seems up for a brawl. He's spending far too much time these days carping at officials or barking at opponents instead of just getting on with things. Presumably, he's just stressed about the economy like the rest of us. Living in L.A. is expensive, after all. For a better example of "getting on with things": Rookie of the year Omar Gonzalez gets a bigger slice of the pie when it comes to media acclaim for the Galaxy's defense. But for one night, at least, it was all Gregg Berhalter, who was an absolute beast against Houston. Nearly unbeatable in the air and relentlessly committed in the tackle, the veteran center back was a man on a mission against Houston. And then to supply the goal that meant so much! A guy with a physique that looks like a bunch of garden hoses tied together was probably the best player on the field. Farewell Blanco? One of the offseason stories worth following is whether Cuauhtemoc Blanco returns to Bridgeview. The Mexican international, now that his MLS side is done, will bounce down to Veracruz of Mexico's second tier. Whether he returns to MLS in the summer is something for Fire officials to sort out -- once they sort out what happens to out-of-contract manager Denis Hamlett. Would Hamlett or a new manager even want Blanco back? Don't forget, he'll turn 36 in January. He was stepping lively over two legs against New England, but not so much on Saturday; what may have been his final MLS runabout was fairly deflated. Meanwhile, young Chicago winger Marco Pappa just couldn't locate any of that space he was finding so often against New England. Was it youthful inconsistency, or did Will Johnson and Chris Wingert along RSL's left side just keep the young man down? Pappa is another one who has a tenuous contract situation that will need attention during what surely will be an eventful couple of months in Chicago. Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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