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.

How can Spurs get over Wembley jinx?

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LONDON — There is a real danger that the book “That’s so Spursy!” will have to add an entire chapter for their ‘home games’ played at Wembley Stadium over the next season.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

Fans of every club get butterflies in their stomach when they first spot the famous arch of Wembley either from the train, the road or on foot.

Supporters of every club except Tottenham, that is.

Spurs lost 2-1 to Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday as the first-ever Premier League game at their temporary home followed the narrative to a tee. Let’s get this straight from the offset: Tottenham didn’t deserve to lose this game. At all. They did, because, well, Wembley. Is it as simple as that?

Everyone connected with Tottenham will be saying so, but there are so many factors to consider, and to try and alter.

After dominating the game Spurs were hit by two sucker punches courtesy of Marcos Alonso‘s first half free kick and then a late Alonso goal following a mistake from Victor Wanyama.

Tottenham have now lost more games at home this season than they did all of last season and they’ve won just two of their 11 games at the new Wembley and one of their last five ‘home games’ there.

Mauricio Pochettino, who continues to be positive above moving to Wembley, insisted that Spurs’ new home wasn’t to blame for his first London derby defeat as Spurs boss.

“It doesn’t affect me. I understand that we need to talk and everyone today I think the Wembley effect is not the reason because we lost the game,” Pochettino said. “The team played really well and it is not fair to blame Wembley because Wembley is, for me, one of the best places in the world to play football.”

“Today was clear today that if you love football and watch football and you want to watch again the game, you will see Wembley isn’t the problem and the size of the pitch. I think we played better, we created chances to score but that is football,” Pochettino continued.

The main qualm from those connected with Tottenham is the size of the Wembley pitch. Here is a fact: it is only five yards longer and two yards wider than their White Hart Lane pitch where they failed to lose a game last season with the size of the pitch supposedly a key factor in allowing them to high-press teams into submission.

Spurs have a system which only works if they push their defensive line high. Jan Vertonghen revealed in preseason that he sees Harry Kane, their highest line of attack, as the reference point for when they need to push higher. The gap between Spurs’ defense and Kane was much more than it was last season, but maybe that’s because they were too scared about leaving space in-behind for Chelsea to hit them on the counter and that would leave the ultimate sweeper-keeper, Hugo Lloris, with too much ground to cover. Five yards it a lot of space to make up time and time again at the top.

Those were the tactical issues, but some of the aesthetics were also challenging.

With confetti still on the floor from Arsenal’s FA Community Shield win against Chelsea two weeks ago, plus beating drums being broadcast over the loudspeakers to generate more noise which prompted chants of “what the f***** hell is that!” from the Chelsea fans, this will take some getting used to.

There are many positives to Spurs playing at Wembley this season.

My ears are still ringing from the roar when Michy Batshuayi scored an own goal late on to make it 1-1. Adults can pay as little as $25 for a ticket, with children paying just $10. It was notable that more families were present at the home of soccer on Sunday with Spurs suddenly able to accommodate double the amount of home fans they could at White Hart Lane. From that point of view it is fantastic.

Every game will be an event but on the flip-side every game will feel like a cup final for visiting sides. Burnley next week, Swansea in mid-September and Bournemouth in October will all relish the chance to play at Wembley in Spurs’ next three home games.

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte told Pro Soccer Talk after the game that Chelsea found extra motivation by playing at Wembley.

“Honestly, I think to see this atmosphere was great. This stadium, Wembley, it is a fantastic stadium, to see this, it is amazing. It is amazing also for the opponent,” Conte admitted, as he smiled. “In this atmosphere, so strong for us, our fans tried to push the same despite 70,000 Totttenham supporters. Honestly I think to see this atmosphere is also great for the opponent.”

Tottenham’s players will not only have to deal with that but the bigger pitch, the increased pressure from larger crowds and also trying to settle into a temporary home. Even after Tottenham get through this season on the road, they will move into the new stadium at White Hart Lane and have to do this all over again in 2018-19.

The mental side of this is huge, hence why putting your finger on how to solve this jinx is so complex.

Just as West Ham proved last season, it’s tough to settle into new, larger surroundings. Mentally it plays tricks with players, the staff and supporters. Everyone. Just like Arsenal struggling in UCL games many years ago before them at Wembley, the truth is that not much can be done to lift this hoodoo.

It has been a constant dull noise scrambling away in the back of the mind of Spurs’ players for well over a year. Pochettino didn’t want to blame the Wembley pitch but he did point at Tottenham’s unlucky streak continuing.

“I think we were a little bit unlucky, if you don’t have sometimes this bit of luck, it is difficult to win,” Pochettino explained. “I am only disappointed, I am not upset.”

Tottenham’s players will park their cars in different spots, sit in different places in the locker room and may even wear new boots for their next home game at Wembley against Burnley next Saturday. Maybe they can train on the Wembley pitch more, sleep in the executive boxes at night and have lunch in the glitzy suites to become more familiar with their new surroundings.

In truth, it will take time. Nothing more, nothing less.

They must simply do anything to break this hoodoo before the UEFA Champions League group stage rolls around next month as they cannot afford any more home defeats in the PL to harm their title hopes any further.

Right now this is just a jinx, but soon the negative noise about Wembley will drown out the optimism of over 70,000 Tottenham supporters.

Chelsea’s Conte: “This is a perfect response of the champions”

AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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Chelsea’s Antonio Conte heard all the grief after his reigning champion Blues fell 3-2 to Burnley last week at Stamford Bridge, so forgive him if he preens a bit after beating Spurs 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

[ MORE: Recap | JPW’s 3 things from Wembley ]

Missing Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas from red card suspensions and already dealing with a relatively thin squad — admittedly of Conte’s choice with many sanctioned sales and loans — Chelsea started Andreas Christensen and not-yet 100 percent Tiemoue Bakayoko and pulled out a win against a very good Spurs side.

“This is a perfect response of the champions. We won the league last season, winning 30 games, and that is not easy. We lost in the final of the FA Cup. We have arrived in some problems with bans and injuries but we must be ready to work and focus on the pitch. The club is trying its best in the transfer market to improve our squad but I must be happy.”

And there’s the rub: Chelsea’s bench did include Pedro and Michy Batshuayi, but also had unfamiliar surnames Musonda, Kenedy, Tomori, and Scott.

[ POCHETTINO: “The better team did not win the game” ]

Eden Hazard will return from injury, but Diego Costa isn’t walking through that door and Chelsea has already sold Nemanja Matic, Nathan Ake, and Nathaniel Chalobah while sending Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Tammy Abraham out on loan.

Expect buys in the next two weeks, whether a linked name like Danny Drinkwater or unexpected targets.

Spurs’ Pochettino: “The better team did not win the game”

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Both Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino and defender Ben Davies says Wembley Stadium has nothing to do with why their club lost to Chelsea.

Pochettino was clearly stung by a loss in which their side out shot the Blues but conceded goals on both of Chelsea’s shots on target. Calling Chelsea a team only aimed to counterattack, Pochettino says Spurs deserved all three points.

[ MORE: Recap | JPW’s 3 things from Wembley ]

“I’m not frustrated, I’m disappointed,” Pochettino said. “The better team did not win the game.”

Earlier on television, Pochettino illustrated that point. From the BBC:

“We are one step ahead than last season. We were much better in every aspect of the game than Chelsea, they were just clinical. I am not frustrated or upset I am happy with the performance of the players. We are working hard, there are plenty of games to play.”

In other questions you can tell both Pochettino and the club are exasperated by the questions regarding Wembley Stadium as a home venue. And, at least Sunday, they are right to feel aggrieved by the idea that the stadium is to blame.

Hugo Lloris allowed a bad goal and Thibaut Courtois made a number of fine saves for Blues. That was probably the difference in the match.

Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Spurs

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on Sunday in the first-ever Premier League game at Wembley Stadium.

The reigning champs put all of their early season worries to one side to sneak out of Tottenham’s temporary home with a narrow win as Spurs squandered chances and Marcos Alonso scored twice, including a late winner.

Here’s what we learned from Wembley.


3-5-2 FOR NEW-LOOK CHELSEA?

When Chelsea’s teamsheet was passed around in the Wembley Stadium press box, there was much debate as to exactly how Antonio Conte would line his side up.

Given suspensions to Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard out injured and Diego Costa exiled in Brazil, Conte was forced into a reshuffle with David Luiz in midfield and youngster Andreas Christensen starting in a three-man defense alongside Cesar Azpilicueta and new signing Antonio Rudiger.

The 3-5-2 system worked to start with as Alvaro Morata squandered a glorious chance by heading wide, then Marcos Alonso curled home a superb free kick to give Chelsea the lead.

However Tottenham soon found space out wide with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso asked to do more attacking than in the 3-4-3 formation and this system seemed to be more out of necessity to protect youngster Christensen and help ease in Tiemoue Bakayoko, than something which will stick around for the rest of the season. Bakayoko and Kante shut down Wanyama and Die from getting on the ball and Luiz shut down the space for Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli to work in.

Chelsea’s new signings settled in relatively well with Morata guilty of missing a gilt-edge chance early on and somewhat weak in the challenge, while Bakayoko roughed up Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele in midfield and Rudiger was solid. With Cahill, Fabregas and Hazard to return, it seems like many wrote off this Chelsea side too quickly this season following the shock defeat to Burnley on the opening weekend.

Yes, Conte will want reinforcements in the final weeks of the window, but things aren’t as bad as they seemed last week for the reigning champs.


WEMBLEY HOODOO CONTINUES FOR SPURS

Perhaps it was the confetti still on the floor from Arsenal’s Community Shield win over Chelsea two weeks ago. Perhaps it was the bigger pitch. Perhaps it was the increased expectation from a crowd of over 75,000. Perhaps it was Chelsea’s fine record against Spurs as they’ve now lost just twice in their last 18 encounters against Tottenham.

Whatever you put this defeat down to, this was the last thing Tottenham wanted to happen in their first-ever league game at Wembley Stadium.

The Wembley hoodoo remains as Harry Kane hit the post, Thibaut Courtois came up with a string of fine saves and there were some horror misses for Spurs. To top it all just when Spurs thought they had nicked a point for all of their endeavors, Alonso scored in the 88th minute after a horrible giveaway by Victor Wanyama.

Much has been made of the size of the pitch and how unfamiliar surroundings could cost Tottenham dear in 2017-18 during their one-year move as their new 61,000 capacity home at White Hart Lane is finished.

Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge home is closer to Wembley than Spurs’ White Hart Lane and the Blues looked more comfortable there from the start with Alonso’s late strike the difference.

Spurs have now won just two of their 11 games at the new Wembley, failing to win in nine of their last 10 trips to Wembley, and for five of those games they were “at home.”

Does it really make that much difference?

When it comes to the pitch size there isn’t much difference between White Hart Lane and Wembley. The pitch size at Wembley is listed as 105 x 75 yards. That makes it five yards longer and two yards wider than the pitch Spurs dominated teams on last season with Mauricio Pochetino’s high-pressing style seeing Tottenham unbeaten at home all season.

Before the season started Pochettino and Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen discussed how high Spurs push up the pitch and how the defense use Harry Kane as a reference point for the rest of their team. If Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld realize they’re too far away from Kane, they’ll push the entire team up. With an extra five yards to cover, time and time again, it makes a difference at the top. We saw that on Sunday with over half the pitch often separating Spurs’ defense with Kane, presumably because Pochettino was worried about Chelsea launching counters and his team being exposed.

With Spurs still getting used to new surroundings, their fans settling into their new matchday routine and a much different atmosphere generated compared to the cramped, hostile White Hart Lane, this will take time.

The main reason Spurs finished second last season was due to their home form. They will have to adapt to their new home quickly, amid an increased wave of negativity following this defeat, to try and remain not only as title contenders but top four challengers.

Tottenham dominated vast swathes of this game but the Wembley hoodoo remains.


DRY AUGUST FOR KANE

Harry Kane has now gone 12 Premier League games without scoring a goal in August.

Considering he is the top scorer in each of the PL’s past two seasons, that’s quite an achievement.

Kane, 24, hit the post, had shots saved and blocked on Sunday as he did everything but score. The curse of August continues for Kane.

But what can you attribute it to?

Kane is one of those strikers who has to feel the game, to feel the moment and then play on his instincts.

He has all of the raw ingredients — pace, power, aerial ability, vision — to dominate but he needs time to settle down on the pitch and get in the groove.

It is not easy to do that after getting 45 minutes here and 60 minutes there in preseason. Kane seemed a little hesitant when the ball dropped around the box to him on Sunday, waiting an extra split second or taking an extra touch.

In the 77th minute Mousa Dembele played him through after a mazy run but Kane slipped at the vital moment. Even if their stadium has changed, some things never do.

September to January is peak Kane time.