CARSON, Calif. – MLS Cup looks and feels the same. The same two teams. The same drama about David Beckham (though resolved this time). The same venue.
And yet this affair is much, much different. Houston appears far stronger than the group that fell here last year. Los Angeles enters this final on a torrid run of form with all three of its Designated Players firing at the same time.
Those factors make this final far more complex than the storyline provided by Beckham's last MLS match. The Forecast delved a bit deeper into the fray to sort out the buildup and suss out which side will emerge victorious.
Saturday, 4:55p.m., ESPN, ESPN Telefutura, TSN, RDS
May 26: Los Angeles 1 (Buddle 10') @ Houston 2 (own goal 38', Hainault 57')
Fitness and health issues are few and far between for two sides that benefited from the extra week of rest. Houston (4-4-2) could name Calen Carr (left hamstring strain) and Ricardo Clark (left adductor strain) in the starting XI after the layoff. Clark departed the 1-1 draw at D.C. United on Nov. 18 early to cope with that adductor knock. Carr missed out on that decisive match entirely. Both men should be fit enough to start if Dominic Kinnear picks them. Los Angeles (4-4-2) could welcome A.J. DeLaGarza (left knee sprain) back for his first appearance since Sept. 30. DeLaGarza said on Thursday he would be ready to play if called upon by Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. If Arena does select DeLaGarza from the start, then Tommy Meyer would drop to the bench.
THREE POINTS TO WATCH
1. Can Houston expose Los Angeles' frailties on crosses and set pieces?: One reason why Arena might stick with Meyer: his size helps when the Galaxy attempts to match up with the Dynamo on dead ball situations. Los Angeles shipped too many goals from corner kicks (six) and struggled to cope with crosses (10 goals conceded) during the season. Omar Gonzalez's presence addressed many of those concerns (he just gobbles that sort of service up), but DeLaGarza's potential inclusion complicates the calculus a little bit against a Dynamo outfit with several potential options to send into the penalty area when required.
2. Where will Landon Donovan play?: He should play up front alongside Robbie Keane. The Galaxy look most potent when that pair buzzes around, between and through the lines and forces opposing defenders to track them into difficult areas. Houston isn't particularly equipped to cope with that sort of threat – Bobby Boswell and Jermaine Taylor aren't the quickest of center backs, though they do position themselves well – and could face significant trouble if the Galaxy are able to get the ball to Donovan in space on the counter.
3. How will David Beckham impact this game?: Beckham won't fade into obscurity in this match. It sets up fairly well for him in terms of tempo (Houston will press a bit defensively to close down his space, but the cadence of the game won't be particularly quick), but his long diagonal balls and his trademark set pieces won't find much success with Boswell and Taylor around to cope with that sort of threat. In this particular encounter, Beckham may just settle for his usually tidy work in possession and try to conjure up a moment of magic if a Dynamo player mistakenly commits a foul in a poor area.
Both teams work particularly well in counterattacking situations. Houston leans on Boniek Garcia to drive those forays with his direct runs down the right and through the middle with Davis always in support and Will Bruin providing the primary target inside the penalty area. Los Angeles leans on Donovan to spark the work in transition. When Donovan is given time and space to run at defenders, he punishes teams by exploiting the room and supplying one of Keane's clever runs when prudent to do so. Look for both teams to foul intelligently in the middle third when possible to prevent those types of breaks when possible.
Expect a tight affair. Both of these teams are compact, composed and experienced. An early goal would do wonders for this game as a spectacle, but it likely won't arrive cheaply. One mistake could prove fatal in this match given the relatively narrow margin between the sides on the whole.
In the final accounting, the Galaxy should send Beckham off in style. Houston will benefit from the inclusion of Clark, Davis and Garcia (and miss Geoff Cameron, of course) as it tries to secure a third title in seven years. The visitors are certainly capable of winning this game on their own merits. But in these circumstances and in this venue, the smart money remains on a home side stacked with two in-form matchwinners in Donovan and Keane and one proud former England captain willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his Galaxy story ends in the proper fashion.
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.