Los Angeles exposed the cornerstones of its success and revealed the crux of its impending MLS Cup battle with Houston in the buildup to its killer third goal in Sunday night's 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake.
The telling sequence mirrored several others during the course of the Galaxy's second successive Supporters' Shield-winning campaign: a midfield turnover, a quick pass to exploit space on the counter and a ruthless finish to punish the opposition.
Boiling the move down to its essentials may unfairly diminish the quality of Landon Donovan's diagonal ball and Robbie Keane's sublime turn and finish, but the fundamental underpinnings reveal why the Galaxy has proceeded through this campaign with its place at the top of the table virtually undisputed.
In its measured and simplistic approach to the game, the Galaxy has shown a remarkable level of precision and quality.
Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena has allied the competing ideals of expansiveness and pragmatism into one model that no other team can match: this Galaxy group boasts three top-level stars to separate the teams and a supporting cast that supplies the backbone and the platform to allow them to do it without fuss.
(Note: It is the time-honored tradition of MLS champions to strip away the finer points and train their focus on the mundane in time for the postseason. Colorado didn't win MLS Cup last season by knocking the ball around with impunity, nor did RSL – the best team in possession this league has seen in quite some time – entirely rely on its aesthetic qualities to progress through the playoffs a year earlier. Most of the time, proficiency and solidity overwhelms ambition in the postseason, though the Galaxy's failure to win a MLS Cup under Arena runs somewhat counter to this argument and underscores the point that other factors also play into a title run.)
The peculiar combination of talents within this group permits the Galaxy to initially place its faith in its formidable back four (a group that showed a rather unusual frailty on set pieces against RSL) and then rip apart the opposition with incisive sequences and set pieces when room opens up for its more creative players.
Such a formula has the capacity to underwhelm if the opponent approaches the game in a certain way, but it can also lead to entertaining fare on certain occasions. The Western Conference final fell into the latter category.
This affair felt more like a fencing bout than a soccer match: action prompted by thrusting, parrying and counter-attacking. RSL's general commitment to enterprising soccer turned the match into a spectacle. The visitors held possession and probed for opportunities, the home side hit on the break when it obtained the ball and the cycle repeated as the match stretched from end-to-end.
Similar patterns against passing teams with more pace and two healthy, first-choice center backs have ended badly for Los Angeles on other nights. After regrouping at halftime, the Galaxy leaned on its stars – and the increasingly influential Mike Magee – to avoid that unexpected fate against a vibrant RSL side and book an all-AEG affair with Houston at MLS Cup in two weeks' time.
For one night at least, all of the money expended on three Designated Players seemed like a snip. David Beckham provided a dollop of sumptuous service from the right to set up Magee's third goal in three playoff games. Donovan backed up his disputed first-half penalty kick with a perfectly-weighted diagonal ball to spring Keane – all around the goal without any end product in these playoffs so far – for a vintage piece of marksmanship to seal the deal.
Crediting those three players for this victory does not entirely explain how this Galaxy team succeeds or how this match unfolded. Los Angeles is – oddly enough given its overall composition – a unit first and a collection of stars second. Every player in the starting XI – from Josh Saunders in net through Chad Barrett up front – offers something to the function of the team as a whole. The consistency and the quality of the so-called role players gives the likes of Beckham, Donovan and Keane license to use their special talents to determine the match and permits the ballyhooed trio to have an off night here or there without always encountering severe consequences.
(Note: Magee and Saunders come in for special plaudits for their contributions against RSL. There were others to laud as well: Juninho's return restored the balance in midfield, while the entire back four looked generally solid from the run of play if suspect from set pieces.)
Los Angeles will encounter a somewhat similar opponent with a vastly different wage structure and a far smaller margin for error when it tries to cap off its season with the club's third MLS Cup triumph.
Houston lost its primary source of inspiration on Sunday night after Brad Davis suffered a right quad injury in the 2-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City and subsequently ruled himself out of the final after the match. Despite the potential impact on the Dynamo's Davis-reliant offense if the veteran left winger's prediction turns into reality, the Galaxy will see aspects of its own play – and the type of resolve that carried Houston to two MLS Cup victories in 2006 and 2007 – in its final opponent.
Dominic Kinnear's side prides itself on its defensive determination and its opportunistic approach at the sharp end. Set pieces loom as the obvious strength at both ends of the park, but the uncompromising Dynamo also bases its success a cool, unflappable confidence that isn't particularly surprising given its recent uptick in form and the number of rugged and seasoned figures within the group.
All of those qualities came into play against a Sporting Kansas City side that showed it isn't quite ready for prime time yet. Andre Hainault supplied the necessary opener after halftime from an Adam Moffat set piece. A spell of resolute defensive play followed before substitute Carlo Costly hit Sporting on the break to decide the match. On the whole, the Dynamo's commitment and shape fueled a fine away performance and a fourth consecutive road victory.
The similarities between the two victories come from their fundamentals, not from their frills. These were two different conference finals from the run of play, but the winners each share common bonds that should make for an engaging chess match – and, potentially, a rather drab encounter on the whole – in two weeks.
For now though, the take-home point from this night isn't the Dynamo's composure or the solid seasons submitted by RSL and Sporting. It is that this expensively-assembled and star-laden Galaxy side usually forces its opponents to perform with uncommon efficiency to emerge victorious. Any Dynamo performance short of that exacting standard on Nov. 20 will likely see Los Angeles lift MLS Cup on its home ground and validate the Galaxy's impressive regular season run over the past couple of seasons.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.