Starting XI: Top 11 questions ahead of MLS Cup
The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into this weekend’s MLS Cup.
1) Will the Galaxy take the final step and state their case as MLS’ GOAT?
This week, LA head coach Bruce Arena thoroughly dismissed even entertaining the idea of comparing this dominant Galaxy bunch to the great MLS champions of lore, including his own legendary D.C. United squads of the late 1990s. That’s to be expected from a coach in his position, but if Sunday’s favorites can maneuver past Houston, the rest of us will certainly have enough evidence to label his team as one of the league’s greatest of all time, if not the very top of the heap.
2) How well can Adam Moffat replicate Brad Davis’ impeccable set-piece delivery for Houston?
As if it weren’t already daunting enough to face the league’s top team on their own turf in the championship game, Houston must do so without their prime source of attacking inspiration, the sterling left foot of Davis. Moffat has proven he can whip in a decent free kick, but can anyone – besides David Beckham, of course – match Davis’ devastating consistency?
3) If Moffat delivers, how can LA possibly stop the Dynamo from winning important aerial battles?
Center back Omar Gonzalez is the only expected Galaxy starter taller than 6-feet, while Houston will bring a battalion of big bodies to the Home Depot Center. In fact, more than half the Orange’s starters are aerial threats on attacking set pieces, and as Brian Ching told MLSsoccer.com’s Simon Borg on Tuesday, “Not too many teams have five or six markers.”
LA could try a zonal marking scheme, or resolve not to commit fouls in their own end. Both are far easier said than done.
4) Is Landon Donovan primed for a return to MLS Cup greatness?
The Galaxy’s No. 10 had two MLS Cup triumphs under his belt by the time he’d finished his third year in the league, scoring in each title game and earning MVP honors in the 2003 edition as he led the San Jose Earthquakes to glory. He would later play a big part in LA’s unexpected run to the 2005 championship. Yet his last trip to the big game isn’t such a sweet memory: failing to convert on his turn in the penalty-kick shootout as Real Salt Lake upset the favored Galaxy in MLS Cup 2009.
5) Can Adam Cristman step up in Chad Barrett’s absence?
Barrett’s dislocated ankle robs the Galaxy of a forward presence who arguably contributes more off the ball than on it. The former Toronto FC striker works tenaciously to combine with teammates, make space-clearing runs and harry opposing defenders. Cristman is the leading contender to take his spot, and while he’ll be hard-pressed to log as many miles as Barrett, his size and strength will be useful against Houston’s burly back line. His combination play with Robbie Keane may prove most crucial of all.
6) Conversely, can Jermaine Taylor keep it tight on Houston’s left corner?
With Davis out because of a torn quadriceps, most observers expect Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear to push left back Corey Ashe into midfield and plug his spot with Taylor. The Jamaican is a versatile, athletic defender who faces some tough tasks, namely limiting Donovan’s impact and tracking Beckham’s tendency to drift out to LA’s right flank and send crosses into the penalty box.
7) How is Arena preparing his back line for the Carr/Ching tandem?
Gonzalez earned every bit of his 2011 MLS Defender of the Year trophy, but LA’s big center back has shown moments of discomfort and indecision when opposing forwards roam away from him to find space in front of the back four. The Dynamo will likely partner speedster Calen Carr with a target man in Ching up top, a contrasting combo quite capable of stretching the Galaxy defense.
8) Which goalkeeper will seize the moment?
After years of paying dues as backups, Tally Hall and Josh Saunders have stepped up this season for their respective clubs and a victory this weekend would be the perfect capper for both netminders. Of course, Sunday’s title bout is probably the biggest and most unforgiving stage either has ever performed on, and both will surely be tested at least once.
“It’s almost like he says, ‘Bring me the biggest game you can,'” Dynamo goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley said of Hall this week, "and, you know, I think he does better in those situations."
We’ll soon find out who is really ready.
9) Exactly how much of a home-field advantage will the Home Depot Center offer the Galaxy?
This one might seem obvious, but consider the fact that many MLS Cup attendees are neutrals and others bought their tickets long before the teams were set. Yes, Sunday’s overflow crowd at HDC will still favor the Galaxy, but will those fans take their cues from the Riot Squad, Angel City Brigade and Galaxians supporters’ groups and raise the kind of ruckus that can propel the home team forward?
10) How can the Dynamo stop Mike Magee?
Consider this stat: three playoff wins for LA, three goals from Magee – two of them game-winners. Beckham’s world-famous crossing makes Magee a devastating weapon at the far post, and the savvy veteran has been a constant danger in the penalty box lately. Young Dynamo winger Danny Cruz must maintain the presence of mind to track Magee at all times, or coordinate coverage with right back Andre Hainault.
11) Will Sunday mark Beckham’s MLS swansong?
The landmark five-year contract that brought Beckham to America is set to expire, and though the Galaxy hope and expect him to resign for another year, wealthy European clubs have been circling and Becks himself has largely kept his own council. Finally securing an MLS Cup trophy might be his “mission accomplished” moment … or perhaps it would whet his appetite for more … or would a loss have that effect instead? Most of us will just have to wait and see.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.