If MLS separated tied teams like a few other leagues, it would be Houston, and not Los Angeles, hosting the Western Conference final Friday (11 p.m. ET,
ESPN2, ESPN Deportes). Both teams compiled 48 points to finish tied for first; the Galaxy prevailed on the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results, by virtue of a 1-0 victory at Home Depot Center
in late June. The teams tied their other meeting in Houston, 0-0, last month, so the Galaxy claimed first place and homefield advantage.
Yet Houston won more games, 13 to 12, which
would seem to be a logical first priority in such situations. Not so in soccer, and thus MLS, and for the Dynamo, it's the first time to encounter this dynamic since the team moved from San Jose
after the 2005 season. En route to the championship in 2006 and 2007, Houston won at home in the conference final.
"It's a tough match going to LA, who came out of their series with
Chivas with some inspirational and effective play from the people who are expected to do that; David Beckham
and Landon Donovan
," says Dynamo coach
. "We feel very confident as we go there. We know nothing will be easy, especially going to LA, but we're a very determined group and hopefully we can continue this road
trip onto Seattle [for MLS Cup 2009]."
If it beats the Galaxy and earns a spot in MLS Cup, Houston will head to Seattle for the second time in the playoffs, having tied the Sounders,
0-0, at Qwest Field in the first leg of the conference semifinals Oct. 29 before prevailing, 1-0, at home last weekend with a superb Brian Ching
goal in the first overtime
"You saw the Seattle-Houston series," said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena
. "They played 180 minutes without a goal and the [winning] goal came in extra time. One
would surmise perhaps Friday will be a similar type of game."
Neither team was at full strength for either of the regular-season encounters, yet both coaches and their players know
what they did against each other in the past - even a past as recent as last month's 0-0 tie in Houston - isn't nearly as important, or indicative, as what's gone on in the last few games.
Both teams tied their semifinal first legs away -- though for the Galaxy, "away" against Chivas USA still meant Home Depot Center -- and prevailed at home, 1-0. The only difference was the
SuperClasico rivals played an error-plagued 2-2 tie, and the Dynamo and Seattle conjured up numerous chances and hit the woodwork twice in an energetic goalless battle. And both teams also won
their regular-season finales at HDC: Houston beat Chivas USA, 3-2, and the Galaxy dumped San Jose, 2-0.
Ching believes a victory at the site of the conference final, plus blanking
Seattle for 210 minutes in the semis, has Houston peaking at the ideal time.
"Coming off a two-game series, with Seattle, I think the team has a lot of confidence," says Ching, who
began his MLS career as a Galaxy part-timer in 2001 before playing a final year with the USL Sounders prior to landing in San Jose. "We've been playing some of our best stuff as we go into the
playoffs. We feel pretty confident. We have a team that is very experienced and has been there before."
There's plenty of playoff experience on the Galaxy roster as well, though a
lot of it has been accrued on other teams. Dema Kovalenko
(D.C. United, Chicago, New York, Real Salt Lake), Todd Dunivant
(San Jose), and Chris Klein
(Kansas City), to name a few, have played on championship teams.
Donovan has won three MLS Cups, including two for San Jose in 2001 and 2003 (with Ching as a teammate), and
a Galaxy title in 2005 alongside Dunivant. That Beckham fellow has won myriad trophies as well.
"They seem to be playing well right now and we had a great matchup a couple of weeks
ago, a feisty affair and good playoff atmosphere," says Ching. "We see this matchup with the same kind of intensity for Friday's game.
"One of the benefits of having a team with so
much experience is you kind of know when you need to step it up and raise your game. Hopefully we can continue to do that in our next game against the Galaxy. We know it's going to be an extremely
difficult test and one that I guess we haven't really been in before, as far playing the conference final on the road."