83 miles to San Jose: My visit to Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinal and a look at the MLS Cup Final

 

A Text from Jon at around 7 p.m.

“Police have shut down tracks at Redwood City so I am stuck for now. They say they don’t know how long the delay will be.”

Fuck.

The original plan was to meet at Buck Shaw stadium in San Jose at 7 p.m. with enough time to get some drinks, buy some food, and explain the idea of “soccer” to my friend who had never been to a game before. What better way to introduce the MLS than a playoff game between L.A. and San Jose?  The issue at hand though was him actually attending the game before said game was over. I was already there, but Jon was taking a train down south and was undoubtedly facing problems.

I decided to go pick him up.

Even if that meant we would show up late to the game (which we did), we needed to do it as a team! A very tiny team consisting of two people speeding in a small ’99 Corolla. After about an hour in traffic, we finally arrived at the stadium just a few minutes into the first half. Great ending, right? Nope, no parking. No parking anywhere within a mile or two radius of the place. We eventually found a spot that may not have been a spot at all near an intersection which was within jogging distance. So that’s what we did, we jogged straight to the closest bar because we obviously had our priorities straight. After spending no more than a few minutes taking shots, complaining about their prices, and then jogging some more, we arrived at Buck Shaw thirty minutes into the first half. We bought tacos, a burrito, and a few beers, we were set.

Trying to cope with San Jose’s terrible playing with our free “Never Say Die” headbands.

Victor Bernardez, San Jose’s key player in the defensive line, suffered an injury early in the game which foreshadowed their early exit in the playoffs. With the less experienced Ike Opara taking his place, Robbie Keane was given as much space as he needed for the first goal against the Earthquakes. Wondolowski was given a chance to equalize just a few minutes afterwards but put too much power behind the ball instead of placing it easily into the net. By the thirty-fourth minute, L.A. had scored once again after Keane sneaked past the Earthquakes back-line and received a wonderful pass from Donovan that cut through the San Jose defense. Five minutes later, Donovan engineered another beautiful play when he carried the ball down the right flank and found Mike Magee for the third goal in just forty minutes.

In comparison to the San Jose offense, Jon and I were the most punctual people in the stadium. Former L.A. player and current San Jose goonie Alan Gordon finally knocked one in with just ten minutes left to go in the game. “Never Say Die” was more relevant than ever before as the San Jose fans waited in anticipation for another goal to send it into extra time. Nobody left because that was routine by that point, San Jose had always scored during injury time when they needed that last minute goal, that last ditch effort. They even gave out free Steven Lenhart wigs to the crowd with the headbands (they were out of the wigs by the time we arrived). The wigs, Lenhart, and the team were synonymous with the “Never Say Die” attitude but it had failed that night. 

The Galaxy, along with the Dynamo, delivered upsets throughout the playoffs and now square-off in the MLS Cup Final this Saturday. Both finalists knocked out two teams who seeded in higher positions than their own. This will be their second time in a row that they meet in the final, but it looks to be very different from last year.

——— 

MLS Cup Final Preview

Los Angeles Galaxy

Pew pew, pew pew

The Galaxy are coming into this game hoping to secure a consecutive league title after winning in the Home Depot Center last year. This will be their eighth MLS Final appearance with three titles already won.

Key Players

Robbie Keane scored sixteen goals during the regular season and has averaged a goal a game during the playoffs. Even more impressive is the fact that his shots have accounted for 27% of the goals during the regular season and 56% from the playoffs for Los Angeles. If somebody is going to score for the Galaxy, it’s probably going to be Keane. His link-up play with Donovan bolstered the team after his return from the Euros during the summer. After his return, Los Angeles went 11-4-4 (W-L-T) for the remainder of the season.

There is a surprising amount of pictures online of Donovan giving Beckham a piggy-back ride.

While reading a recent article about Donovan, one thing stood out above everything else. It wasn’t his vague statements about possibly taking a break (which he has been making for a very long time), but this statistic: he has averaged a game every eight days for the past twelve years. Taking that into consideration, it is truly surprising that he hasn’t had more injuries than the ones he has suffered this year. Either way, Donovan hasn’t let his emotional or physical woes hinder his combination plays with Keane which has made them the most dangerous duo in the MLS. For Donovan, creating 1-2’s and defense-splitting passes isn’t his only forte either, all he has to do is look to his side to link up with Beckham to create more plays for the L.A. offense. The Galaxy tend to play at their best when Donovan and Beckham are able to play free-roaming roles around the midfield. Speaking of Beckham, he was in the news recently wasn’t he?

Never have I seen so much coverage about a single player from the MLS. Plenty has already been said about David Beckham, especially about his post-MLS career. Becks has been rumored to be interested in nearly every major soccer league around the world during the past week. Any soccer fan could easily get lost in the immersive world of Beckham (such as me) and completely overlook what he actually does, play soccer. Beckham has been able to make impressive long passes that are still as accurate as ever. His diagonals along with his free kicks makes him a threat during any set piece. Although the announcement of his retirement from American soccer seems a bit odd, there is something to keep in mind. During his last years at Real Madrid and Manchester United, Beckham clinched the league title and you can bet he is going to want this pattern to continue on Saturday. 

Mike Magee or “Magic Mike” as some fans have called him, has provided crucial goals for L.A. during these playoffs. The speedy attacker is an often forgotten key player that has the confidence and reliability in front of the net which the Galaxy will need to utilize against Houston. Houston has been very impressive defensively during the playoffs but will face a much tougher task against the Galaxy who create many more opportunities than the likes of Sporting Kansas City or D.C. United.

Omar Gonzalez has been outstanding so far this year, although he does make the occasional mistake (such as the perfect set-up for Wondo during the game I attended), he tends to compensate with his dominating play. Just like Keane, the Galaxy play better when he is present and he really needs to be. The weakest spot in the team is the defense which will require Omar to have an impeccable game. With injuries to Gonzalez at the beginning of the season and then DeLaGarza just a few months later, the center of the defense is a vulnerable spot for Los Angeles. DeLaGarza has been ruled healthy for the Galaxy but has yet to play a playoff game or see the pitch in almost two months.

Houston Dynamo

The 1990’s was a very different time

The Dynamo are here for a second time in a row but are a very different squad from last year. Houston have won three games so far on the road during the 2012 playoff run and are looking for a fourth on Saturday.

Key Players

The Dom might be the most important piece of this Houston Dynamo team. Nobody ever predicted that the Dynamo would be able to knock-out the Chicago Fire, Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United but the Dom figured out a way. Dom Kinnear is a pragmatic coach who has been able to utilize every player on the team to his full potential. Since taking charge in 2006, Kinnear has taken Houston to four of the last seven MLS Cup Finals. Kinnear has an approach that focuses more on having the right players on the field as opposed to having the right formation. For the Dom, defense is the first priority, Houston may have finished fifth in the East, but they only had forty-four goals scored against them (tied for second-lowest in the East). Compare that to Los Angeles who had forty-seven during the regular season.

Boniek Garcia has never played against the Galaxy, he claims that he hasn’t even seen the final game from last year. The Galaxy, along with the rest of the league, are fully aware of who he is and have definitely seen him play. Since his arrival in June, the Dynamo went from a 5-5-5 record to going 11-4-7 (including playoff games). Garcia is able to create opportunities out of thin air and has the sublime ability to avoid pressure whenever he receives the ball. If DeLaGarza is still not healthy enough to play on Saturday, Tommy Meyer will have a very difficult time keeping up with Garcia. Although Houston typically play a more direct style that moves directly through the middle, the incorporation of Garcia gives them strength through the wings. The two wingers in which Houston relies on is Garcia on the right and veteran Brad Davis on the left.

Last year midfielder Brad Davis infamously missed only one game, the final against Los Angeles. Davis has great ball control, creates chances, and has already provided three assists so far during the playoffs. He might also be the best all-around offensive player that the Dynamo have. For Houston, Davis is first on the list for assists and second for goals, shots, and shots on goal. He is also known for his set piece plays off fouls and corner kicks. One thing to keep in mind though is that Houston is no longer the “set-piece team” it used to be. Houston dropped from scoring 33% last year to 23% this year off set-pieces and when it comes to corner kicks, Dynamo were ranked in last for corner kicks won. That being said, the 23% is still very impressive and Houston have another offensive player who finished his season in the top ten list for goals scored.

Wait, you’ve never seen the dancing bear?

Will Bruin saw little to no playing time last year, this year the striker finished the season with twelve goals and has scored four in the last five playoff games. Bruin is a consistent striker who is constantly looking for the ball. Houston’s no-nonsense direct play to the big striker will place most of the chances up front in Bruin’s hands, or in this instance, feet. Bruin is carrying some great scoring momentum right now and needs to keep it going if he wants to compete with the likes of Keane and Donovan on the other side. That other side needs a solid game from the keeper as well, Tally Hall.

Tally Hall was almost drafted by the Galaxy back in 2007, but decided instead to play a couple of years in Europe. Hall eventually came back to the U.S. and found a spot as the starting keeper for Houston in 2011. His great positioning and quick responses have saved the Dynamo on multiple occasions this year. With a total of twelve shutouts and 1.19 Goals Against Average, the Galaxy might have a difficult time finding the back of the net.

Prediction

This is going to be a chess game on a pitch, in a good way. Both teams are going to have a conservative approach with a reliance on staying back behind the ball. Houston will move the ball quickly up the field and Los Angeles will look for counters. The Dynamo will be able to break the shaky back-line and find the net a couple of times but the Galaxy will prove to have too much strength offensively between Donovan, Magee, Beckham, and Keane. Especially Keane who I honestly believe has been the most dangerous player of the latter half of the season. Beckham, despite his age, is still very competitive and will look for the perfect ending to his career in the MLS. Tally Hall is going to have a good game but will be dominated the Los Angeles offense. Don’t forget the location of the game either, since June the Galaxy have collected a 13-3-0 (W-L-T) record at home, including playoff games.

Los Angeles 3-2 Houston

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