MLS Cup 2012 preview: Houston Dynamo vs. L.A. Galaxy

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CARSON, Calif. – When is the actual result of an MLS Cup final very nearly reduced to a subplot? When the illustrious David Beckham has made it his MLS finale.

And it is quite possibly Landon Donovan’s MLS curtain call, too.

Global soccer’s most iconic figure of the last two decades concludes his six years in Major League Soccer in the league’s 17th MLS Cup. Beckham, 37, has already announced that he will take his preternaturally gifted right foot – is there one more free kick goal in that pricey boot? – and perform elsewhere after Saturday, if only for a short duration.

And what to make of Donovan, the 30-year-old attacker who is the national team’s all-time leading scorer (and on a march to be Major League Soccer’s all-time leading scorer), but who seems a little beaten by it all and keeps dangling the notion of retirement?

And we haven’t even gotten to the Houston Dynamo, a humble and hard-working club that tends to grind out playoff results like no other. The Dynamo, steered so ably by smoothly demanding coach Dominic Kinnear, is in its fourth MLC Cup in seven years.

Houston fell to L.A. in this same matchup last year, 1-0.

Don’t forget, this is the first final played under new MLS playoff rules that award host duty to the finalist with the best record. So the big home field edge goes to the Galaxy – never mind that the weather in Southern California looks and feels a lot like we’re all in rainy Seattle.

(MORE: ProSoccerTalk’s final predictions:)

Saturday’s kickoff: Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif., 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Telefutura

On the Houston Dynamo

  • The game has a chance to look a lot like last year’s, when the Galaxy squeezed out a 1-0 win in a meeting of the very same teams. In the very same building. With roughly the same weather. So it could once again be frustratingly cautious, as finals tend to be. Plus, both teams are good at waiting out the other fellow, careful not to make a mistake while waiting to pounce on one.
  • On the other hand, this is a very different Houston Dynamo team. Added since last year’s final are right-sided attacker Oscar Boniek Garcia and ground covering midfield specialist Ricardo Clark. Plus, the team’s four-time MVP, Brad Davis, will be on the field this year. Last year’s loss came as Davis watched from the sideline, injured.
  • Somewhat forgotten is that Houston also played the 2011 final with four center backs across the defense. Andrew Hainault was on the right, Jermaine Taylor on the left; both were in fill-in capacity due to other injuries. Thus, Houston’s ability to attack up the flanks was severely pinched.
  • So the Dynamo has the opportunity to apply far more pressure on L.A. this year. “We should be a lot more aggressive this time,” midfielder Adam Moffat said. “Last year, we created very few real chances, to be honest.”
  • Kinnear’s men are as healthy as they’ve been in a long time. Clark and Moffat, the preferred central midfielders, are training at full capacity after some recent injury worries. Calen Carr is back on the field, too, giving Kinnear a more pacey option for selection at forward.
  • Striker Will Bruin has four playoff goals, just one behind MLS post-season leader Robbie Keane.
  • You cannot talk about the Dynamo without mentioning how dangerous Davis and his pinpoint set piece deliveries have been for years. In most estimations, the veteran lefty is the second best restart specialist in MLS – after Beckham.
  • Davis has contributed directly (scored or assisted) on 20 Dynamo goals over each of the last two years.

(MORE: Oscar Boniek Garcia’s potential impact)

(MORE: Houston Dynamo 2012 vs. 2011 – not even close)

(MORE: Brad Davis says MLS Cup 2012 is not about revenge)

(MORE: Deconstructing the Houston Dynamo success)

On the Los Angeles Galaxy

  • Said Beckham, about the run-up to his final MLS contest: “It’s been an enjoyable week…. I am quite an emotional person. I know I will feel more emotion probably the day of the game. Maybe the night before the game. But I am really excited about the game itself. To be in third MLS Cup final, especially one being played in our own stadium, I am excited. And it’s going to be special.”

(MORE: David Beckham says goodbye to MLS)

  • Beckham has evolved into more of a support player this year. He can still ping the pretty passes accurately over 60 yards, and the Dynamo players know so. Clark will be tasked with applying early pressure on the former England captain. Beckham will idle a little deeper in the midfield, not making quite as many thrusts forward, not quite as many overlapping runs around the right side, etc. Whereas last year he was more a “playmaker-distributor,” this year’s Beckham’s role is more “distributor-playmaker.”
  • Donovan, as he has most of his career, has lined up recently as an outside midfielder or as a second forward alongside Irish international Robbie Keane. It’s mostly about whether Galaxy coach Bruce Arena prefers midfielder Christian Wilhelmsson or forward Edson Buddle in the starting lineup; Donovan will fill the other spot.
  • Arena has a choice to make at center back, where rookie Tommy Meyer or far more experienced A.J. DeLaGarza will start alongside commanding center back Omar Gonzales. DeLaGarza is training now but has not played in two months.
  • Mike Magee has become “Mr. November,” so nicknamed for his tendency to contribute the big playoff goals. His late runs into the penalty area from the left side tend to be expertly timed.
  • And speaking of movement around the penalty area, Keane’s choices on where to go find the ball and his ability to create defensive confusion over the last two or three months has been as good as any forward in MLS. Ever.
  • Keane (16 goals, 9 assists) and Donovan (9 goals, 14 assists) were MLS Best XI selections. Gonzalez almost surely would have been but for missing half the season through injury.
  • Is this the “last hurrah” for a uniquely starry Galaxy side? Donovan said they aren’t thinking about that. “Any team from year to year has lots of turnover. That’s the way sports are. That’s the way other leagues are. So we’re just excited about the game tomorrow. Not many teams have a chance to do what we have a chance to do, and we want to make the most of that.”
  • L.A. is attempting to become the first back-to-back league champions since Houston won in 2006 and 2007.

(MORE: Which version of the Galaxy shows up Saturday)

(MORE: David Beckham’s pre-match press conference)

(MORE: The Galaxy’s center back choice)

(MORE: Donovan mum on his future)

(MORE: Comparing Galaxy 2011 vs. 2012)

Bottom line:

A Galaxy team with Beckham, Donovan and Keane at full rev, with Gonzalez properly policing the back line, would be extremely difficult to beat, especially at home. But all of that has not happened consistently in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Kinnear-coached teams know just how to reach that final gear in the post-season. They managed to make things very hard on the Galaxy in last year’s final despite being severely under-strength.

Houston can expect to create a few chances. So will Los Angeles, with Keane at the tip-top of his game. Look for a close and fairly cautious match – and don’t be surprised if this one is 1-1 after 90 minutes, needing an extra 30 minutes and possibly even penalty kicks to declare a winner.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.