Nine months, 456 matches, and controversy aplenty. And it all comes down to to one game, one high-octane head-to-head for the title.
The fourteenth season of Major League Soccer is nearing its end and, while Seattle Sounders have skewed an otherwise worrying attendance picture, the action on the field has impressed. Two teams are still standing, and they’ll play for MLS Cup in Seattle this Sunday. It may not be the final commissioner Don Garber would have wanted – apart from one obvious element – but it has all the makings of an exciting one.
Friday’s Western Conference final hit the 90 minute mark without a goal, as had Houston Dynamo’s semi-final against the Sounders. This time, the Dynamo lost out in extra time as Gregg Berhalter stabbed the ball home from close range and Landon Donovan sealed LA Galaxy’s journey to Seattle from the spot. Two floodlight failures punctuated the match and took it past 11pm, but there was no dampening of LA’s spirits as the Beckham-Donovan axis goes from strength to strength.
Over in the East, matters were even more fraught. Western Conference wildcard Real Salt Lake’s progression past Columbus Crew put them into an Eastern Final against Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. Again the underdogs, RSL triumphed nonetheless in another conference final which suffered a lack of goals. A tense match saw Salt Lake hold out against a wave of Fire chances for 180 minutes before goalkeeper Nick Rimando stood firm in the penalty shoot-out. Ned Grabavoy’s winner secured RSL’s spot in the final.
Season so far
Real Salt Lake are as unpredictable as they come. In the early season they contrived to lose away to New York Red Bulls, one of the worst teams in the league’s history. They did so having beaten Columbus and DC United in consecutive games, and went on to demolish a very solid New England Revolution a week later. In a sense, those April results summed up their season. One minute RSL are formidable, the next they’re pretty untidy. They eventually got their revenge on New York, winning 2-0 at Rio Tinto to keep their playoff hopes alive in the middle of October.
Salt Lake qualified for the playoffs as the fourth wildcard despite picking up only 40 points from 30 games and winning just 11. It’s not terribly impressive, but it may not matter. The fact is RSL kept going right until the very end despite looking dead and buried, and qualified thanks to a bizarre final weekend. That determination can go a long way in one-off matches so it could be perfect for Sunday.
LA Galaxy kicked off the season with a draw at Chicago Fire and that result set the tone for the next couple of months. They drew six of their first seven matches and then went on a five-match tying streak bookended by wins over New York and Toronto FC. Throughout those periods LA looked anything but world-beaters but their main problem was failing to turn draws into wins, not scrapping to pick up those draws in the first place. The football was good, but the killer instinct was slightly lacking.
The easiest turning point to identify in LA’s season is the return of David Beckham from AC Milan in July, but that’s something of a falsehood. Beckham’s first game back in the Galaxy side was a 3-1 win at Giants Stadium, the final game in a solid four-game winning streak for the team. It is true, though, that Beckham’s influence has been telling. He links increasingly well with Landon Donovan and their partnership gives the midfield a creative edge to supplement its industry.
Worryingly, one or two defeats have begun to creep onto the form book towards the end of the season. In September, a 6-3 humiliation at the hands of then rampant FC Dallas was compounded by a loss at Columbus Crew. But they won the Western Conference title after finishing top of the Western table – that should please the purists.
MLS Cup 2009
Sunday’s game has all the makings of a thriller, and yet it could just as easily go the other way. The Galaxy look a different team to that of five months ago, but their playoff matches so far have demonstrated that they retain the knack of drawing matches. Their defensive unit is very competent and is capable of shutting the game right down given the right circumstances. On top form, Salt Lake have the personnel to cause LA some problems. But it’s been almost impossible this season to predict which RSL will show up for a game. Sometimes we get the fluid, dynamic RSL which can pile on the pressure and score for fun; others, it’s the anonymous RSL.
Judging by Salt Lake’s performances against Chicago and Columbus, I’d say the Galaxy won’t have it all their own way on Sunday. If the Salt Lake coaching staff can get their players prepared mentally for this match – as if they’ll need it – they’re certainly worthy contenders.
Regardless of Salt Lake’s unpredictable nature, would MLS have preferred a different final? There was much talk of Don Garber having a preference but in truth I don’t think MLS sets out at the beginning of the season with an ‘ideal’ MLS Cup tie in mind. But I’m certain that as the Conference finals kicked off the prospect of the league’s two highest-paid designated players – both due to leave MLS (probably temporarily) – facing off against one another became a very attractive one. But it wasn’t to be, and Cuauhtemoc Blanco will not be on the pitch against David Beckham.
Adding yet more spice to the occasion is its venue. Seattle Sounders couldn’t quite get over the finishing line but their supporters will no doubt be out in force at Qwest Field on Sunday. Football seems to have recaptured Seattle’s imagination and the team has been well-supported this year, integrating well into MLS and becoming one of its finest assets. The capacity at Qwest has been opened up to 42,000 for MLS Cup and with LA and RSL both taking plenty of supporters to the north west, the atmosphere should be electric. Keep an eye out for a whole load of rave green, though.
The Men to Watch
Real Salt Lake might be the unsung contender for this match but they have two of its most lethal players. Robbie Findley went through a fantastic purple patch in front of goal earlier in the season and has continued to impress while RSL have jostled for a playoff position. Yura Movsisyan, an Armenian forward who scored RSL’s first ever MLS Playoffs goal, is one of the league’s most exciting players to watch. He can beat his man with a blend of skill and strength, terrifies defenders when running at them, and has been known to put the ball in the back of the net. Behind them, Kyle Beckerman is arguably Major League Soccer’s most efficient box-to-box midfielder.
For the Galaxy, Landon Donovan and David Beckham have the potential to be deadly. Beckham’s passing ability remains second-to-none, as demonstrated in the playoff tie with Chivas USA, and his dead ball delivery could be the key which unlocks a nervy final. Donovan’s pace and skill is always dangerous and he has begun to link up effectively with the former England skipper. He also has a fantastic eye for goal and, dare I say it, a good record from the penalty spot. At the back, Omar Gonzalez has rightly been crowned Rookie of the Year and is capable of handling himself in the big games. But he’ll have to have his wits about him to keep RSL’s raiders at bay.
This MLS season has been a very good advertisement for the league. Seattle Sounders made a blistering start before Chivas USA took over as frontrunners. As the season wore on, the quality of Columbus Crew began to shine through and New England Revolution dragged themselves back into contention. There was mid-season drama in Kansas City and New York as coaches came to the end of their tenures, and in DC the most storied club in MLS history, DC United, went rather stale.
So, with the fifteen down to two, who’s got the wherewithal to take it all the way?
Real Salt Lake, as they’ve shown throughout the playoffs, are more than capable of springing a surprise. But I think this is the Galaxy’s year and MLS Cup has their name on it. They have overcome adversity, shaken off their inability to turn draws into wins and they play some of the best football in the league. What’s more, the two big guns are firing. You don’t really think Beckham will be satisfied until he’s won the title, do you?
Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts the twofootedtackle Podcast.