MLS Cup Final: 10 Players to Watch in the Houston Dynamo V LA Galaxy Matchup
After a long MLS season, the MLS Cup Final is finally upon us. The Houston Dynamo, making their third appearance in the last six years, will be taking on the Los Angeles Galaxy, who are also no strangers to the MLS Cup Final, having made it to the game a record seven times.
Both teams have taken very different paths to reach the MLS Cup Final.
Los Angeles dominated league play, winning the Supporters' Shield by finishing four points ahead of the Seattle Sounders and 14 points ahead of Real Salt Lake, before brushing aside the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake in the playoffs.
Houston on the other hand finished seventh in the overall league table and second in the Eastern Conference, finishing the season with a fairly mediocre record. However, they too managed to comfortably put away the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City to make the final.
Since Los Angeles performed so better than Houston in the regular season, Los Angeles will probably go into the MLS Cup match as favorites.
However, it must be remembered that Houston won the last match between the two sides in October, and have won all the MLS Cup Finals they've played in.
Let's look at the players who will be crucial in deciding who wins or loses this game.
If Houston are to succeed in the MLS Cup Final, success will have to start with the captain, Brian Ching.
The Hawaii-born striker has not been great for Houston this season, scoring only five goals in 20 MLS league appearances, but he has been active in the MLS Cup Playoffs, scoring a goal and recording an assist in the three games Houston have played.
With star midfielder Brad Davis injured and unlikely to feature in the MLS Cup Final, Houston will need at least a bit of magic from their experienced leader if they are to upset the LA Galaxy at The Home Depot Center.
If Los Angeles's captain and best player plays well, it's very hard to see the LA Galaxy not winning the MLS Cup, especially since they are playing at home.
LA's Mr. Consistency has put in another solid season, scoring 12 goals and recording three assists in the MLS regular season.
In the MLS Playoffs, he's been even more influential, scoring the winning goal (via a penalty) against the New York Red Bulls, and recording a goal (again, another penalty) and an assist against Real Salt Lake.
Though the LA Galaxy are much more stacked in terms of player talent than the Houston Dynamo, and therefore less reliant upon Donovan for success than the Dynamo are on Ching, Donovan's play will likely have an especially significant impact on who wins the 2011 MLS Cup.
The forward likely to start alongside Brian Ching in the MLS Cup Final for Houston is Calen Carr.
Calen Carr's first season at Houston has been a very strange one. After suffering a major concussion with the Chicago Fire, Carr was traded to Houston, but did not recover from his injury until August, very late into the season.
He made five substitute appearances and four starts toward the end of the season, but was rather unproductive, scoring only once in a substitute appearance.
Carr repaid Dominic Kinnear's faith in him in the playoffs however, scoring the crucial winning goal against the Philadelphia Union to give Houston the win and the lead heading into the second leg.
Despite the availability of Honduran striker Carlos Costly, it appears likely that Carr will be the striker to start the MLS Cup Final, given that Kinnear has preferred to utilize Costly as an impact substitute in the playoffs.
If Houston are to have any hope of beating the LA Galaxy, Carr will need to have a good game.
Despite having played and started in both legs of Ireland's Euro 2012 Playoff with Estonia, Robbie Keane is expected to be named to the starting lineup of the LA Galaxy in the MLS Cup Final.
In Robbie Keane's very limited time in the MLS thus far, he's looked pretty good. The Ireland captain has scored twice in four MLS regular season games, and scored in LA's 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake to reach the MLS Cup final.
Robbie Keane is a player who oozes quality, as his Man of the Match performance against Estonia in the first leg showed. Keane took over that game, scoring twice and assisting a third goal to put Estonia out of the picture before the second leg had even started.
If Keane decides to put on a performance that resembles the one that he put on against Estonia, its safe to say that Houston will be in for a lot of trouble.
Houston's regular left back is Corey Ashe, who normally operates the left flank to great effect with Brad Davis.
However, it is expected that with Brad Davis injured, Corey Ashe will be forced to move up to cover for the injured Houston star, and that in Ashe's place, Jermaine Taylor will play at left back.
It's hard to know what to expect for Taylor in the MLS Cup Final. The Jamaican international did pick up a number of games down the stretch of the regular season, but only played 53 minutes of playoff football with Houston, all of which came as a substitute following Brad Davis' injury against Sporting Kansas City.
Jermaine Taylor will be tasked with the tremendous responsibility of keeping Landon Donovan shackled and in check through the game. If he can do this, then he will significantly boost Houston's chances of winning the game, but if not, I wouldn't expect Houston to win.
Earlier this week, it was expected that Chad Barrett and Robbie Keane would be the starting strikers for the LA Galaxy at the MLS Cup Final.
But due to a freak injury picked up in practice, Barrett has been ruled out of the game, and Adam Cristman is expected to be given the opportunity to step up.
Cristman's scoring record has not looked good at all this season.The American striker has scored once in 13 games, and unlike all the other previous guys on this list, he hasn't really stepped up in the playoffs.
What's worse, he's being asked to replace one of the most productive players that LA have had this season. Chad Barrett was in excellent form, having scored three goals and recorded an assist in the last four league games of the season, and seven in total.
If Adam Cristman fails to perform at the MLS Cup Final, he could seriously make life harder for the LA Galaxy and hurt the team's chances of victory.
Houston will be hoping that Carlos Costly has perfected the art of the "super sub" by Sunday, because that's the role he will likely be playing in the MLS Cup Final.
Carlos Costly was given numerous opportunities in the regular season to prove his worth to Houston and Dominic Kinnear, but after failing to find the back of the net time and time again, Kinnear decided it would be better to try using Costly as a "super sub."
In his fourth match as a substitute, Costly scored against the LA Galaxy, and he further excelled in his substitute role in the MLS by scoring the second clinching goal against Sporting Kansas City.
Kinnear and Houston will be hoping that Costly will be able to come up big and score one more time before the season ends, as this will be massively influential in deciding who wins or loses the 2011 MLS Cup.
Throughout his time at with the LA Galaxy, David Beckham has become better known for his offseason transfer moves and rumors than his play on the field.
This has been the case this season too, as speculations abounds on whether the 36-years-old Englishman will move to Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur, Queens Park Rangers, or just stay with the LA Galaxy.
But for once, this season has also been a good one for David Beckham. In 26 league games this season, David Beckham has scored two goals and assisted 13, winning the 2011 MLS Comeback Player of the Year following a poor 2010 season which saw Beckham miss much of the regular season through injury.
In the playoffs, David Beckham has been in excellent form, assisting four of the six LA Galaxy goals scored,
If Beckham can ignore the transfer speculation until after the MLS Cup concludes, and keep his mind on the game, he is likely to be one of the most dangerous wide man in the game on Sunday.
Teaming up with Jermaine Taylor on the left flank will be Corey Ashe, who could possibly find himself being the most under pressure Dynamo player in the MLS Cup.
Corey Ashe will be responsible for keeping David Beckham or Landon Donovan quiet on his flank, but even further, he will be responsible for creating the magic in midfield and sending in good crosses, since Brad Davis isn't available to do so.
As a 2011 MLS All-Star. Corey Ashe is one of the better players on the Houston Dynamo team. Yet, with no goals or assists this season, its hard to know if Ashe really has an offensive side to his game to put on display in the MLS Cup Final.
Whatever happens, Ashe will no doubt be involved, but his ability to get involved in the offense, and of course shackle either Donovan or Beckham down his flank, will be very important to Houston's chances of winning the Cup.
The last player I want to spotlight for the LA Galaxy is Mike Magee. With all the international stars at the LA Galaxy, Mike Magee is often a guy who simply does not receive the attention he deserves,
With five goals in 26 league games, Mike Magee has been fairly solid this season for the LA Galaxy, but he has really come alive in the playoffs with three goals, making him the MLS Cup top scorer at present.
Having scored in all three of the last playoff games for the Galaxy, Magee will be in red hot form for the LA Galaxy, and gives them another potential game-winner in their very, very talent-stacked lineup.
Who's Going to Win?
I'm a Houston guy. I've been raised in Houston, and I've watched at least a couple Houston Dynamo games live.
I love the Dynamo, but even I am willing to concede that the team set to face the LA Galaxy on Sunday looks very weak.
The defense looks alright, with Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron forming one of the strongest center back combinations in the league, and Andres Hainault performing well from the right back position, but it is unknown if Jermaine Taylor will just be able to seamlessly cover for All Star Corey Ashe at left back, if he is indeed selected to play there.
As for the LA Galaxy, I would honestly expect them to beat a good number of decent European teams, such as maybe the lower end teams of La Liga, the EPL, Serie A, etc.
The Galaxy have one of the best defenses in the MLS, and in general have quality in every single position on the field, as well as decent depth.
The loss of Chad Barrett is one of the few things that will hurt/weaken the Galaxy prior to their match with the Dynamo, but LA should have more than enough talent to overcome Houston.
So though I will be rooting for Houston, my pick to win has to be the LA Galaxy.