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Galaxy, Dynamo set for MLS Cup final
Sunday started and ended as expected. It is the middle part that placed the fate of MLS Cup in some question.
Houston will travel to Los Angeles for a MLS Cup rematch on Dec. 1. The two sides entered the decisive second leg ties as heavy favorites after they took care of business at home in the first legs. It stood to reason that seasoned operators such as the Dynamo and the Galaxy would not toss away two-goal and three-goal advantages, no matter the circumstances presented.
Common wisdom held, but it did so in two divergent ways. And the manner in which the second match unfolded served up a timely reminder that Los Angeles must do far, far more than show up to retain its title on its home ground.
Houston learned from the nervy denouements against Chicago and Sporting Kansas City earlier in the postseason, and relished its opportunity to close out D.C. United at RFK Stadium. Forget about sitting back and waiting for United to search for goals. The visitors pressed high from the first whistle and pushed numbers forward on the break when United's attacking forays – limited by the omission of Chris Pontius (groin), the peculiar desire to test the Dynamo's aerial prowess and the static approach inside the penalty area – inevitably broke down in the final third.
For much of the afternoon, the Dynamo looked the more likely team to score. Brad Davis created the decisive goal after 34 minutes with a determined surge toward the end line and a left-footed pullback for Boniek Garcia to rifle into the roof of the net from close range. Several Dynamo players could have bolstered the advantage with the acres of space allotted by a desperate United group in the second half, but the tattered home side – even with Dwayne De Rosario on the field for the final half hour and a late surge to grab an equalizer through Branko Boskovic – never placed Houston in any serious trouble.
“Right from the get go, you saw us trying to press high and not make it easy for them to play,” Davis said after the 1-1 draw. “We did not want to sit back. In all honesty, the game could have been 4-0 before they even scored a goal if we'd have taken those chances a little bit better. Still, it doesn't matter. We missed the chances. We still had to defend. Guys did. We won. We're happy we're moving on.”
Los Angeles will share similar sentiments, but the Galaxy encountered more resistance in its 2-1 defeat at Seattle in the nightcap. Most of the qualities displayed by Houston earlier in the day were noticeably absent in the opening stages as the Galaxy encouraged Seattle to believe a massive shock beckoned.
Sounders striker Eddie Johnson opened the scoring after 12 minutes (his second valid goal of the night, as the first one was incorrectly ruled out for offside) and signaled this night would not unfold comfortably for the champions. Seattle dominated the proceedings as the Galaxy showed more nerves than expected without Landon Donovan (hamstring) and Juninho (Achilles) in the starting XI. The visitors settled down as the first half progressed, but the tempo and the tone of the affair benefited an aggressive Sounders side in search of goals.
The Seattle push continued as the second half started. Veteran defender Zach Scott continued the rally seven minutes after halftime as he dove to head home Christian Tiffert's inviting corner kick. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena threw Juninho into the mix to add some composure to the midfield proceedings (and he did), but even the veteran coach couldn't have expected that his side would seal a berth in the final with a controversial penalty kick award after 68 minutes.
Howls of disbelief rang through CenturyLink Field when Mark Geiger pointed to the spot after Robbie Keane clipped the ball off Adam Johansson's left arm. It looked like a harsh decision to the crowd and to many observers at home, but it adhered to the letter of the law and stood nonetheless. Keane dispatched the penalty with aplomb to quell the Seattle charge and send the Galaxy through after a bumpy night.
Los Angeles' stumbles reinforces the notion that no result – not even an aggregate victory over two legs with a three-goal advantage in hand – is certain in MLS. The defending champions will be favored to dispatch the Dynamo yet again and secure a second straight title. And they might even merit that tag if Donovan, A.J. DeLaGarza and Juninho return to full strength and if the defense can sort itself out once again during the next fortnight.
But the Dynamo showed on Sunday that it won't fade quietly into some preordained celebration at the Home Depot Center. Dominic Kinnear's outfit submitted a professional and ruthless display against United to confirm its own championship credentials and raise the intriguing prospect that this group is perfectly equipped to topple the Galaxy with its blend of defensive strength and efficient attacking play.
On a day that started and ended as expected in terms of results, the seemingly narrow gap between these two sides at this juncture of the postseason offers perhaps the primary takeaway point to ponder ahead of the MLS Cup rematch looming in two weeks' time.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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