With the conference finals now over, the MLS Cup is set.
On December 1, the Houston Dynamo will travel to Los Angeles to take on the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center, with kickoff slated for 1:30 PST.
The game will be a rematch of the 2011 MLS Cup, which the Galaxy won 1-0.
Here are six key battles to watch in the game.
Josh Saunders has looked anything but comfortable during the MLS playoffs when balls are served into his penalty area.
In the Galaxy’s series against the San Jose Earthquakes and the Seattle Sounders, Saunders repeatedly came off his line on corner kicks and dead ball services, even when he stood no chance of getting to the ball.
This is one of the cardinal sins of goalkeeping because it leaves the keeper in a “no-man’s land” where the keeper both doesn’t handle the service and is caught off his line unable to stop even a simple redirect.
With Brad Davis largely regarded as having one of the best set piece deliveries in the league, the Galaxy could be in big trouble if the Dynamo are able to generate a large number of corner kicks or free-kick opportunities in the attacking third.
In his long career, Landon Donovan has rarely been injured.
This is remarkable for two reasons.
Considering the incredible number of games and minutes he’s played over the years, it would make sense that Donovan would get injured from time to time.
But it is also amazing considering that both his club teams and the USMNT have been largely dependent on Donovan over his career, and that has meant that he is required to put in a game-changing effort every time he steps on the pitch.
However, Donovan is rarely out of the lineup for his club and, until the last year, rarely out of the lineup for the USMNT.
This season has been a different story.
Donovan has been picking up more knocks than usual and may be finally feeling the wear and tear of the many miles he has put on his legs.
Donovan had a semi-serious knee injury near the end of the MLS regular season, which kept him out of the USMNT’s October qualifiers and, despite recovering from that injury, was kept out of the lineup against Seattle on Sunday due to hamstring tightness.
With two weeks in between the conference final and the MLS Cup, Donovan should have time to recover for the game. If he doesn’t, LA will have a tough time winning the game.
Will Bruin has had an outstanding playoff run with four goals in five games.
Omar Gonzalez has also had a number of great playoff performances, Sunday night notwithstanding.
The battle between the Dynamo’s center-forward and the Galaxy center-back should be key to who comes out on top in the MLS Cup.
The advantage for Gonzalez is that he tends to play well against big bruising forwards like Bruin.
Gonzalez did an outstanding job against Steven Lenhart (who loves a physical challenge) of the San Jose Earthquakes when the two met in their conference semifinal series.
It will be very interesting to see how Bruce Arena lines up his side should Landon Donovan be fit for the game.
When Arena has teamed up Robbie Keane with Edson Buddle, Keane has cut a frustrated figure. Buddle does not seem to be able to get Keane the ball when and where Keane wants it, and Buddle does not seem to make the runs that Keane is expecting him to.
However, when Keane is paired up with Donovan—either up top, or with Donovan combining with Keane from the wing—the two seem to enjoy an almost telepathic connection.
They are able to get each other the ball even in tight spaces and find each other naturally, making runs that tear opposing defenses to shreds.
Should LA be at 100 percent, the Dynamo will face a much stiffer challenge than the relatively ineffective challenge presented by DC United and Sporting Kansas City. While DC and Sporting both put a lot of pressure on the Dynamo defense, neither of them created very many dangerous shots.
Dynamo center-backs Bobby Boswell and Andre Hainault as well as Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall should expect a tough night.
This matchup has the potential to be one of the great unnoticed chess matches of MLS Cup 2012.
On the Dynamo’s left side are left midfielder Brad Davis and left-back Corey Ashe.
On the Galaxy’s right side are right-back Sean Franklin and either Landon Donovan or Christian Wilhelmsson (Donovan has been deployed both at forward and right midfield so far in the playoffs).
Both Franklin and Ashe love to get forward, but if either gets too aggressive on the attack, they will likely leave their team short-handed on any potential counterattack.
Brad Davis and Landon Donovan are two of MLS’ premier attacking midfielders, but both also work back defensively.
Both backs will have to pick and choose their moments to go forward. Both backs and midfielders should have a serious impact on their team’s respective offensive output, and at the same time, a lack of defensive effort from either side could be fatal.
This matchup is salivating for fans of the tactical nuances of the game.
There is no doubt that LA is the more glitzy of the two teams involved in this matchup.
The Galaxy have David Beckham, Robbie Kean and Landon Donovan, three of the most famous soccer players in America. And, LA’s style, epitomized by its designated players, is far more stylish than Houston’s.
The Galaxy also have the advantage of home-field advantage and beat the Dynamo in last year’s final.
To their detriment, the Galaxy will have the added distraction of Beckham’s recent announcement that he will be leaving the team at the end of the season.
The Dynamo, under the leadership of head coach Dominic Kinnear, have won the conference title four out of the last seven years, a major feat in MLS, where player acquisitions are severely limited by the league’s structure.
Kinnear’s teams also have the reputation of playing a bruising, physical style where every player on the field is expected to play hard both ways.
It may not be pretty, but it certainly is effective.
Yet it remains to be seen which style will come out on top.
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