On Saturday, the Houston Dynamo will visit the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., to contest the MLS Cup final against the favored LA Galaxy.
If that sounds oddly familiar to you, you’re not alone. For just the second time in MLS history, the league’s deciding game will be a rematch of the previous year. (In the previous final rematch, the Houston Dynamo twice claimed the MLS Cup at the expense of the New England Revolution.)
On paper, neither LA or Houston deserve to be playing for a championship. Los Angeles, so dominant last year, marching to its Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double coronation, stumbled out of the gate. It won a meager three of its first 13 matches before righting the ship and making the playoffs, almost sheepishly, as the fourth best team in the West.
The Dynamo have an even unlikelier story. Woeful away from home, Houston limped into the final playoff spot in the East by a single point, riding its form at “The Oven,” newly opened BBVA Compass stadium, to pip the Columbus Crew.
But peeling back the stats, ignoring the slumps, and examining why these teams are where they are for the second season in a row, a number of patterns emerge. You have two teams with elite veteran leadership. You have two teams that have turned set pieces into a science. Perhaps most importantly, you have the two best coaches in Major League Soccer.
To call Bruce Arena the best coach in U.S. soccer history would be an exercise in stating the obvious. The former professional lacrosse player and soccer goalkeeper will soon pass 40 years as a coach, an illustrious career that has seen him turn Virginia into a national collegiate powerhouse, win every club trophy available to MLS coaches, and take the U.S. men’s national team to its best-ever finish in a World Cup held since television added color.
It was Arena’s mix of international cachet - he and protege Bob Bradley are the two best-known American coaches overseas - and MLS success - he turned D.C. United into the league’s first dominant club - that allowed Arena to succeed in blending a team of international stars and MLS lifers.
“I've always said that Bruce's man-management is very good,” David Beckham told reporters before the Galaxy took on the Seattle Sounders a few weeks ago. “He's very good with the players and that's important as a manager.
“He's strict when he needs to be and he's good at putting his arm around a player that needs it. He's obviously got a lot of experience in this league and in this country, and he's a great manager.”
Though many might not admit it, Arena has done a favor for MLS by winning with Beckham in his squad. Last year’s double legitimized Beckham's place in MLS as one who could contribute and help lead a championship team, not just serve as a marketing ploy.
While Dominic Kinnear may not have the same resources as Arena, he’s managed to build one of the most consistently good teams in Major League Soccer. Houston won the championship in the first two years of its existence, building upon a transplanted San Jose Earthquakes side with which Kinnear claimed the 2005 Supporters’ Shield. In eight seasons as a head coach, Kinnear has missed the playoffs only once. If his team is victorious on Saturday, Kinnear could become the second head coach, after Arena, to win three championships, and the first to win all three with the same club.
“Four out of seven years going to the cup -- that's pretty good," said Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis after his team defeated D.C. United to make the final. "It's been a great partnership for me. He gave me an opportunity coming to San Jose when he got me from Dallas. I've loved every minute of it.”
Kinnear’s success is not a coincidence. He’s constructed a team that may not shut down airports when it visits foreign countries, but one that makes the most of its opportunities - Davis is probably the second-best set piece artist in the league after Beckham, if not his equal - and has a self-perpetuating ethos of hard work.
"He holds us to a high standard,” Davis said of Kinnear. “And we hold our teammates to a high standard and vice versa. ...
"You've got to give the guy credit for what he's done with this team."
Veteran midfielder Ricardo Clark, on his second spell with the Dynamo after a frustrating three-season stint in Europe, worked under Kinnear in the early days in San Jose and Houston, and was a vital part of Kinnear’s early successes.
"His whole attitude that he instills in the players, it just resonates throughout the team,” said Clark. “Everybody works hard, everybody works for each other and that's just been the main thing, was the mentality. It's been good for us."
So while the Galaxy dominate the headlines and betting odds ahead of the final, that'll suit Kinnear and his blue-collar squad just fine.
"We’re not glamorous and we don’t hoot and holler and talk about ourselves too much,” Kinnear said about his team. “We just kind of go about our way and that’s maybe why people – once they don’t overlook us, they respect us, but they don’t really see us in the vein of wonderful teams. But if it comes down to results – four MLS Cup (finals) in seven years to start our franchise is pretty impressive."
No matter what happens on Saturday, whether Arena further confirms his status as the best coach in league history with four titles in 17 seasons, or whether Kinnear - who has finished half of his seasons as an MLS head coach with a place in the final - ties Arena at three for the all-time lead, one fact remains. Bruce Arena and Dominic Kinnear are the two best coaches in MLS.
Zac Lee Rigg and Avi Creditor contributed reporting to this article.
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