SEATTLE -- One side will make its sixth Major League Soccer championship appearance. One has yet to see its sixth year in existence.
One roster is replete with high-level experience skimmed from World Cups, Champions League and MLS Cups. The other pales in decoration and achievement, but does wear the steely look of determined underdog -- and may even carry a slight whiff of destiny.
The L.A. Galaxy's glittering globetrotters meet the relatively anonymous men of Real Salt Lake on Sunday in a nighttime kickoff from Seattle's Qwest Field. Los Angeles has David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the dean of U.S. soccer coaches in Bruce Arena. Real Salt Lake's clock punchers, led by the league's youngest manager, are plowing forth on momentum and tight team accord with the 14th MLS Cup title on the line in the Emerald City.
The Galaxy will surely be favored, especially considering RSL has never won on artificial turf away from Utah, with an 0-8-3 mark. Plus, the club has been generally awful on the road through its five years of existence. But Arena isn't buying it, noting that RSL is "balanced and well put together."
"Now [RSL] are in the MLS finals because they have produced two victories on the road, something people said couldn't be done," Arena told a national media teleconference audience Tuesday. "We know that very little separates the teams in the playoffs."
Five storylines to follow
1. The Galaxy defense: Cutting the number of goals allowed in half from one year to the next is nothing less than stunning. Indeed, the Galaxy went from 62 goals allowed last year under indifferent Dutchman Ruud Gullit, who treated defense as a bother, to just 31 this season. Since the cold-water splash of allowing six to Dallas in early September, the Galaxy has six shutouts in eight matches, including last week's 2-0 win over Houston.
2. The experience factor: The collective Galaxy résumé simply spills over with pressure cooker appearances in World Cups, MLS championships and such. Donovan has three league titles so far, plus far more World Cup appearances than the entire Real Salt Lake roster combined. And talk about performance under pressure: Beckham has 115 caps for England's highly scrutinized side.
Eddie Lewis and Gregg Berhalter have started World Cup matches. And coach Bruce Arena is without peer among U.S. coaches in big-game experience.
On the other side, RSL coach Jason Kreis, for all his MLS scoring achievement and his quick study on the managerial end, has never played nor managed in an MLS Cup. His roster includes just the thinnest dusting of international experience. Is there anything RSL can do that can mitigate that substantial edge?
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"I think we've got enough players with experience," Kreis said Monday, matter-of-factly. "I don't look at like we've got a lot of rookies that haven't been in pressure situations before."
3. Two hot goalkeepers: The Galaxy's Donovan Ricketts may be the top find of MLS in 2009. Long and lanky, he stabilized L.A.'s rear guard by making the big saves and managing all the little stuff without drama. He'll oppose Nick Rimando, the consummate MLS soldier: great at club level but unable to fully break through internationally. None of that mattered, however, as he seriously delivered in the clutch last week, saving three Chicago Fire spot shots in the penalty tiebreaker.
4. Reclamation projects: Both managers here are steering the last miles of a long drive for organizational redemption. The Galaxy had suffered since 2005 thanks largely to dysfunctional and meddling upper management. Stability was finally reached under Arena, who reversed the spiral faster than even he expected. At 58, he's the league's second-oldest manager.
Kreis, 36, retired suddenly as a player in midseason 2007 to begin pulling RSL's wagon from the ditch. They got close last year, just missing on a trip to the final. One manager will finish the job Sunday by claiming the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
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5. Lamenting the plastic pitch: For all its faults through the years -- and as a league still in its teenage years, MLS has shown a few zits along the way -- the title has always been decided on real grass.
League officials pondered the temporary installation of natural grass at Qwest Field but ultimately concluded the window available was insufficient. The scene is sure to be rocking as the Seattle Sounders' fan base adds a punctuation mark to a record-breaking season, but the playing surface will be far less than perfect.
Both teams puzzled over how to cope this week, unable to practice on Qwest's particular version of FieldTurf until arrival in the Pacific Northwest.
"There's nothing we can do about it, but I think it's a shame, to be quite honest," Galaxy veteran midfielder Chris Klein said. "We're not gonna talk about it and not gonna focus on it. But everything Seattle has to offer as an MLS city, as a new franchise and a terrific fan base, they have so much going for them. But I think the fact that the game is on FieldTurf is pretty poor."
Five players to watch
1. L.A.'s David Beckham: Brand Beckham has finally reached the league's premier contest. The Beckham Experiment needed three years, three managers and one highly publicized and sometimes unflattering book, but here it is. The Beckham of late has been useful on the field and, apparently, a solid figure in the locker room. His so-so numbers this year -- two goals, three assists in 11 matches -- don't tell everything about his sublime passing over distance and ability to steer possession. Plus, as Major League Soccer continues to build brand equity and national footprint, the ability to roll a Beckham factor into this week's equation can't hurt.
2. L.A.'s Landon Donovan: At age 27 he is already domestic soccer's most decorated talent, with pretty much every achievement available to a U.S. attacker domestically and internationally already in pocket. Speculation is sure to rise anew that Donovan, the league's all-time playoff scoring leader, is ready to give Europe another try if he captures a fourth MLS Cup. Really, what else is left to do here?
As for Sunday, Arena can deploy Donovan wide left or as a withdrawn striker; the team's leading scorer (12 goals, 6 assists) is comfortable either way. And consider what else he does for L.A.: "He gives us an edge for everything you see on the field," Klein said. "And any time you know you've got the best player on the field on your side, it has to give your team a psychological edge."
3. RSL's Kyle Beckerman: Beckerman is just 27 but seems to have been around forever. (That he's like Donovan that way is no coincidence, as both once manned a ballyhooed U.S. under-17 team that also featured DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu.) Since turning pro at age 17, Beckerman has hovered perpetually on the national team fringes. But at club level the man is a fearless, dogged soldier, solid in passing and possession, fierce in tackling and indomitable in work rate and spirit.
4. RSL's Robbie Findley: With far less acclaim, the 24-year-old striker matched Donovan's 12 MLS goals this year (tied for third among league leaders). Blessed with pace and good instincts, Findley could soon elbow his way into league elite status, and a World Cup roster spot next summer in South Africa isn't out of the question.
5. L.A.'s Gregg Berhalter: At age 36, Berhalter will be Sunday's oldest starter. His invaluable tutelage of Rookie of the Year Omar Gonzalez has been well-chronicled, but he is rarely mentioned otherwise as one of the club's success drivers. But he was a center back on a mission against Houston last week, quick to tackle, dominant in the air and supplier of the critical first goal. He'll need to be super sharp and mind his positioning against the nimble Findley, as speed is hardly Berhalter's top quality.
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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