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.

It’s confirmed: Club Leon parts ways with Landon Donovan

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Landon Donovan’s four-month adventure in Mexico appears to be over.

Club Leon announced on Sunday that it had parted ways with Donovan, despite the 36-year-old having a contract through the end of the calendar year. Donovan made just eight appearances for Leon, with just one start, and failed to score or assist on a goal as Leon slumped to 13th place in the Clausura season.

[READ: England squad reconnects with fans]

“…both parties have decided not to (keep the contract) for the Clausura that united us,” Leon said in a statement. “The departure of Landon from our team has been exemplary in all aspects. The club loses a legendary professional from the world of sports that leaves an indelible institutional imprint.”

It’s unclear what’s next for Donovan, but he stated in an interview with PST’s Matt Reed that he intends to continue playing in Mexico.

Donovan recently drew the ire of U.S. Men’s National Team fans and Donovan’s former teammates when he revealed he was rooting for Mexico at the World Cup this summer as part of a Well’s Fargo campaign.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”