[MLS] To reach its first MLS Cup, FC Dallas has to get the past the only team to play in the league’s showcase event six times. The Los Angeles Galaxy hosts the Western Conference final Sunday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/Deportes).
FC Dallas tied a league record by losing just four games this season, yet two of its losses came against the Galaxy.
As far as any advantage that might give the Galaxy, Coach Bruce Arena isn’t counting on it. “It's going to be a tough game," he said in a conference call Wednesday. “That's what we learned from the two previous games this year, and we know the team is going to have to be ready to play in order to be successful.”
Teams that interchange midfielders and forwards in the attacking half of the field – such as San Jose, Kansas City and Colorado – have troubled the Galaxy this season. If the Galaxy midfield has a weakness, it’s laxness in tracking players coming into the goalmouth from deep positions, which is how FC Dallas broke open game two of the conference semifinals against defending champion Real Salt Lake.
David Ferreira, on the left flank, chipped a ball into the middle, where left mid Brek Shea had drifted inside. Shea easily fended off left back Tony Beltran to knock down the ball for onrushing central mid Dax McCarty, who controlled it with his first touch and then drilled a shot past keeper Nick Rimando. Both RSL centerbacks, Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, had drifted toward the ball, which left Beltran marooned in a huge space.
“Everyone’s comfortable on the ball but they have a good workrate,” says San Jose coach Frank Yallop of FC Dallas. “They’re dynamic when they go forward and they’re tough defensively. They seem to have that nice balance of being attractive going forward but not giving up goals at the back.”
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Dema Kovalenko chasing McCarty from midfield to the penalty spot, or Beckham winning high balls from Shea, so how smoothly the Galaxy defenders can pick up such runs is nearly as important a factor as containing Ferreira and Jeff Cunningham. Ferreira’s brazen bursts into the penalty area unhinge opponents; he’s more predator than playmaker, and as such ratchets up pressure and risk of error on the defense. He’s also adept and confident going at goal from any angle; he can slash through channels, loop behind an outside back to the goal line, dart inside to line up a shot or short through ball, etc.
Much the same can be said about Landon Donovan, whose laggard form has grown more pronounced in the past month or so. While many teammates, such as Kovalenko, seem fresher since the Galaxy lost to Puerto Rico in the Concacaf Champions League preliminary round in August, not so Donovan. He hasn’t scored a goal in nearly two months.
Donovan's will is as strong and ideas as sharp as ever, but the legs simply aren’t responding. The fatigue has prompted actions like a shove in the back to Jackson Goncalves -- clearly a foul – that enabled him to gain possession and set up a goal for Beckham when the Galaxy beat FCD, 2-1, at Home Depot Center on the final day of the regular season. That strike matched an opening goal by Atiba Harris, and Los Angeles hit a second just before halftime when Juninho nailed a shot from the edge of the box past goalie Dario Sala. Harris sat out the second leg against RSL serving a suspension; his return to the right flank gives FCD a rugged, relentless attacker equally valuable as a target or to carve out space for Cunningham and Ferreira.
FCD coach Schellas Hyndman is concerned about the Galaxy’s prowess on set plays with Beckham serving balls to big targets; Omar Gonzalez and Edson Buddle, who knocked home headers in the second leg against Seattle, are among the options. Just as critical for FCD is to not concede corners and free kicks in its own defensive third, yet during the run of play, Beckham is just as dangerous.
He’s never been fitter since coming to MLS more than three years ago, so his mobility and experience at finding space must be monitored by holding mid Daniel Hernandez as much as left back Jair Benitez, and Shea if he plays on that flank. Benitez can aid the FCD cause by pushing up his flank to play balls for Shea, serve crosses into the box from midfield, and force Beckham to work defensively.
FCD’s chances will ride largely on the performance of three former Galaxy players. Keeper Kevin Hartman snuffed RSL numerous times in the semifinals with saves reminiscent of his LA “El Gato” days that included the 2002 and 2005 MLS Cup titles. Defensive linchpin Ugo Ihemelu, a rookie on the 2005 champ, has looked a bit rusty and is still getting back his sharpness after missing more than two months recovering from post-concussion problems. Hernandez started his MLS career with the Galaxy in 1998; he suffered a hamstring pull in mid-September and is back to destroying opponents’ attacks and funneling clearances upfield.
Both teams have reeled off impressive streaks this year. FCD set a league mark by going 19 games unbeaten, the Galaxy started the season 10-0-2 and in that span posted five straight shutouts. In addition to that 2-1 win in the season finale, the Galaxy also beat FCD, 1-0, at Pizza Hut Park May 20, for what it’s worth.
“Regardless of what happened this year, we wouldn't feel any different if we beat them twice this year,” says Hernandez, who played for the losing New England teams in the 2002 and 2005 MLS Cups. “We still come in with the same confidence, with the same mentality of trying to win the most important game of the season right now.”