WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
LOS ANGELES vs. HOUSTON (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)
Each team features strong points that match up an opponent's flaw. Speedy Dynamo forward Dominic Oduro tormented Seattle's back line not only with his pace but some clever linkups with Brian Ching, and neither of the Galaxy central defenders, Gregg Berhalter and Omar Gonzalez, is really fast. For corner kicks and free kicks near the Houston penalty area, even if only one of the Galaxy big men go up, Sean Franklin may be assigned to guard against an Oduro breakaway. Ching is very sharp and hungry right now, as shown by his superb overtime finish against Seattle last weekend.
With Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Chris Klein, Todd Dunivant (the lone goalscorer in the regular season meetings), and Eddie Lewis, the Galaxy has an incredible array of players who can whip, curl, swerve, drive, and yes, bend, balls from the flank into the goalmouth. But forwards Edson Buddle and Alan Gordon haven't been very dangerous lately and somebody must work the penalty area effectively to get onto balls and create space.
Both Dynamo outside backs, Mike Chabala and Adrian Hainault, have replaced injured starters this season. Mike Chabala is suspended, yet Kinnear can recall veteran and captain Wade Barrett at left back. If outside midfielders Brad Davis and Brian Mullan are forced back to cover, that will deprive them of opportunities to support playmaker Stuart Holden and central partner Ricardo Clark. Houston can dictate the game if Davis gets free up the flank or can veer inside, and Mullan powers forward to attack the goalmouth.
Arena's choice for a holding midfield role will also shape the outcome. Dema Kovalenko played an excellent game in the second leg against Chivas USA , but his range is limited, especially compared to that of Clark, and if he tires T&T international Chris Birchall might get a shot. An illness scratched Birchall from the second-leg lineup the day of the game, so Arena must slot that variable into his equation. Stefani Miglioranzi has been bothered by a groin strain and is questionable.
Dynamo Pat Onstad has been one of the top goalies in MLS since he joined the old Quakes in 2003, and Arena credits Jamaican keeper Donovan Ricketts for stabilizing what had been a very shaky position for the Galaxy. Onstad saved a PK during regulation play in MLS Cup 2003 for San Jose and his stop of Jay Heaps in a tiebreaker clinched the 2006 title.
Prediction: Galaxy 3, Dynamo 1.
Ridge Mahoney's playoff prediction record: 4-4.