By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Nov 21, 2012) US Soccer Players – At first glance, the Houston Dynamo appears like an odd MLS Cup finalist. No one expected them to be in this position at the start of the season. Even fewer thought they would be playing for the title once the playoffs began. In a League where the playoffs matter more than the regular season (see San Jose and Kansas City), the Dynamo peaked at the right time and knew how to win – especially on the road – during this topsy-turvy postseason.
For Houston, it will be its fourth trip to the final in seven seasons. Winners of back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, the Dynamo reached last year’s final, only to lose to the Los Angeles Galaxy. In 2011, the Galaxy, loaded with stars, was favored to win and did. This year, I’m picking the Dynamo.
Houston has been simply amazing over the past few weeks, powering their way into the final with a lineup firing on all cylinders. A hot goalkeeper (Tally Hall), a tight defense (center back Bobby Boswell), a superb midfield (Brad Davis), and a reinvigorated attack (Oscar Boniek Garcia) have allowed Houston to win games against the Chicago Fire, Sporting Kansas City and DC United. Houston dispatched DC United fairly easily in the Eastern Conference final.
On the other hand, the Galaxy did not look so great in its 2-1 second-leg Western Conference final loss to Seattle. LA struggled to put together chances. The Sounders stretched the Galaxy midfield all night. Only a Robbie Keane penalty kick put the brakes on a Seattle comeback. Overall, Houston has been flawless in the playoffs, something no one should be saying about the Galaxy.
Coach Dominic Kinnear’s 4-5-1 system has worked well. With Macoumba Kandji (an MLS Cup winner with the Colorado Rapids in 2010) on the left and Boniek Garcia on the right, Houston used the flanks effectively against DC. Davis made sure he kept possession of the ball enough to frustrate his opponents. When Davis did not have the ball, Houston did concede loads of possession, but never looked panicked. Having a game’s constantly evolving situations under control is half the battle.
“I don’t think we’re the prettiest of teams. We’re not glamorous. We don’t hoot and holler and talk about ourselves too much. We just go about our way,” Kinnear told reporters at RFK Stadium after Houston tied DC United 1-1 Sunday for an overall 4-2 aggregate win.
The other part of achieving success in soccer, of course, is scoring. Houston livened up its attack with the inclusion of Boniek Garcia this year. He is fast and opportunistic, and the Honduran often makes chances out of nothing. Against DC, his one-time strike was a thing of beauty. Boniek Garcia, only the Dynamo’s second-ever DP in history, has four goals (off of 12 shots) in 17 games since June. In short, Boniek Garcia was the player Kinnear needed. The Galaxy, on the other hand, has relied heavily on defense (even more than Houston) and have effectively used the counterattack — usually initiated by Landon Donovan – to score goals. If Donovan isn’t healthy for the final (he was out Sunday night versus the Sounders), the Galaxy’s chances sink even lower.
There has been plenty of excitement surrounding Houston this year. Kinnear credits his side’s 2-1 road win over the Chicago Fire in the wildcard match as what got his side rolling. In reality, Houston had the potential to do what they eventually did starting months ago. A new soccer-specific stadium injected even more enthusiasm into a team that has a wonderfully loyal fan base. Playing at home had been its strength during the regular season. In fact, the Dynamo finished unbeaten at BBVA Compass Stadium. If you include the playoffs, the team finished with a 19-game home unbeaten streak.
Injuries that had kept key players out of the first-leg match against DC healed in time for this past weekend’s game. Ricardo Clark, Jermaine Taylor and Adam Moffat all returned to the starting lineup. Although Clark may miss the final after re-injuring himself, the Dynamo still have plenty of options in all sectors on the field.
Amid all the hoopla of David Beckham’s final game and how he will end his Galaxy career with another title, it is worth arguing that Houston can use that distraction to its advantage. Houston not only wants revenge for last year, but it also has the chance to play the role of spoiler. The Dynamo will also have the Home Depot Center crowd against them, but that will matter little as these playoffs have already shown.
In last year’s final, Houston played without Davis. Out with a torn quadriceps suffered in the 2011 Eastern Conference final, Davis led the League in assists and was an MVP trophy finalist. This season, Davis remains Houston’s most creative player. I know that means little for a blue-collar club such as the Dynamo, but it is worth mentioning that Davis is a workhorse. He gets the job done. In the end, that’s what the playoffs are about. That’s what a one-game final is about. That’s why Houston will win the grudge match against LA in this year’s MLS Cup final.
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