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The favorites went through on Sunday to reprise their title tilt from a year ago, but this edition may not necessarily reflect the previous encounter.

WASHINGTON – MLS Cup certainly looks the same as it did a year ago. Houston and Los Angeles will meet again at the Home Depot Center in a couple of weeks. The two teams follow orders from the same men and prefer the same approaches. They fight for the same prize and wear the same colors.

But this so-called rematch isn't that simple. It can't be that straightforward. Challenges change from year to year. Personnel shifts from year to year. Maybe the fundamentals remain constant, but the particulars differ.

The passage of time could make all of the difference for the Dynamo in its quest to topple the Galaxy. Dominic Kinnear's side offered an away display of real quality on Sunday afternoon. The scoreline read 1-1 at the final whistle, but the match favored the visitors in just about every way.

This performance – efficient from start to finish and punctuated by a goal from Boniek Garcia – and the prospect of playing Ricardo Clark (definitely not suspended and perhaps healthy enough this time around after missing out during his first spell with the club) and Brad Davis (the Dynamo missed him desperately a year ago) in a final underscores the differences between the beaten side a year ago and the hopeful squad now preparing for Dec. 1.

“Every year is different,” Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall said after the Dynamo won 4-2 on aggregate. “Obviously, I would have loved to have won last year, but this year is a new year. We're happy with what we've accomplished so far, but we have one more game to win. That's the goal. It's been the goal since day one. We have two weeks to prepare. We're excited with how we're playing. So I'm excited.”

Those feelings of joy should extend to a group that looks better suited to the task ahead than its immediate predecessor did. Relative strength between the two squads remains difficult to judge, but there are signs in favor of this revamped group. This Dynamo outfit, after all, absorbed Geoff Cameron's mid-season move to Stoke City with a minimum of fuss and integrated a host of new players – including former midfielder Clark and Garcia, the perfect complement to Davis given his directness and his pace on the right – into a familiar setup without losing that postseason touch.

Even with the alterations and the accompanying boost they bring, this Dynamo group retains its usual grit and tenacity. That consistency in approach is a testament to the culture developed during this sterling run (four MLS Cup appearances in seven years) and the desire of new players to adhere to it.

“Over the years, we've had new guys come in, but continue to buy into what we're doing,” Davis said. “It's great. I love seeing the new guys in here and seeing the hard work they put up throughout the year, being successful and enjoying it.”

The ultimate success remains firmly in view. Houston defends well enough to give any team a game. It possesses enough creativity in midfield with Davis and Garcia and enough quality from set pieces to nick a goal or two along the way. It sports the attitude required to enter a hostile arena and emerge with a victory.

All of those qualities and a host of others make this Dynamo team a different proposition than the one faced by the Galaxy last year. Robbie Keane's sterling form as of late and the personnel changes in defense and midfield place Los Angeles into the same category for the Dynamo.

The looming final may resemble the affair played last year at the same venue despite those chances. It might not. The only certain thing now is that this fixture is not a carbon copy of the match that ended last season. Plenty of room exists to alter the script and devise a new ending to a story that looks awfully familiar at first glance. Appearances, after all, can be quite deceiving.

Handling call quashes Seattle comeback, sparks outcry in Emerald City

One whistle snuffed out a furious Sounders FC rally and spared the Galaxy's blushes in the second half
of Seattle's 2-1 win at CenturyLink Field.

Referee Mark Geiger blew it with little more than 20 minutes to play and pointed to the penalty spot in a series separated by one goal on aggregate. Adam Johansson handled when Robbie Keane's cross hit his left arm (and, replays showed, may have grazed off his right hand on the way over the end line), Geiger decided.

The decision incited a vociferous response from a Seattle side robbed of its ample momentum and ultimately led Osvaldo Alonso to procure a second booking after the match. Geiger justified his call in his reply to a question from a pool reporter after the match.

“The hand was in an unnatural playing position, and he was making himself bigger by taking space,” Geiger said. “His arms were outside of his body.”

Both of the reasons cited by Geiger feature among the three primary factors weighed by referees to determine whether or not a player deliberately handled in a given situation. The three criteria, as spelled out in a 2009 directive issued by U.S. Soccer, are as follows: (1) making yourself bigger; (2) is the arm or hand in an unnatural position?; and (3) did the player benefit?

In the event that those three points are not enough to sway the referee's decision, then two more criteria can be introduced: (4) reaction time (“The less time a defender has to react, the less likely there has been a handling offense”); and (5) did the player initiate the contact with his hand or arm?

(Note: In the opinion of this columnist, the offense didn't warrant a penalty award based on the criteria at hand. The situation presents a close enough decision to prompt the introduction of the fourth and fifth criteria here. If those factors are introduced, then play should continue. But reasonable minds can and do disagree on this one.)

(Note #2: Johansson did violate the one maxim he couldn't afford to breach in this instance: he placed himself in a position to allow the referee to make a decision by failing to control his body.)

After reading those rather complex guidelines and trying to apply them in this given situation (and fans and observers justifiably came down on both sides of the fence on this one), is it any wonder that referees inconsistently enforce a rule that couldn't be stated much more simply in the Laws of the Game?

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 kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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