Beckham inspiring the Galaxy
David Beckham has been the Galaxy's key postseason performer
Houston overcame the loss of influential Brad Davis to beat Sporting KC
Dominic Kinnear has reminded people why he's arguably the league's top coach
Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Sunday's conference finals:
1. David Beckham is finishing strong: Say what you want about David Beckham, about his cover boy lifestyle and about time spent in England earlier this year that wasn't necessarily the best thing for his MLS side. However, the man shows up, bringing all his forces to bear when it counts.
For those just now joining in, the former England captain is no mere figurehead for the Galaxy.
His body of work during the playoffs has been somewhere between unimpeachable and outright inspirational. For a third consecutive match Sunday (and third match over just eight days, too) Beckham was a bundle of skill, passion and industry. He ran as much as central midfield partner Juninho, who is 10 years younger than soccer's 36-year-old global icon.
Beckham's contributions weren't just limited to medium- and long-range passes. His defensive commitment has been robust, never leaving the tracking and tackling to someone else -- even if he probably could.
Still, in the end, Beckham's calling card will always be his service into opposition penalty areas. Sure enough, his pinpoint cross into Mike Magee for L.A.'s second goal was as good as any you saw in the world over the weekend.
Speaking of Beckham to Magee: Who knew that would be the killer combo of the 2011 postseason? They've hooked up in that precise order for three playoff strikes -- one in each of the Galaxy's matches en route to the Nov. 20 final.
2. Early MLS Cup story lines: This two-week gap between the conference finals and MLS Cup is new to MLS. Blame a pair of upcoming FIFA international dates. Landon Donovan is on Jurgen Klinsmann's list for a trip into Europe for these FIFA dates, but the all-time U.S. leading scorer doesn't seem quite himself, perhaps still be bothered by the quadriceps strain that slowed him through the end of the regular season.
Never mind his successful penalty kick Sunday; Donovan surely is missing some zip.
So, might he opt out of the U.S. trip? Klinsmann wants his full team, but the additional wear and tear might not favor Donovan, so stay tuned there. Fellow Galaxy DP Robbie Keane will cross the Atlantic for Ireland's important Euro 2012 playoff home-and-away series. In his case, the extra matches may help in Keane's continued quest for full fitness.
Back on U.S. national team matters: don't expect any quick end to the continued carping about Klinsmann's selection of center backs. Not with the Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez ready to feature in the 16th MLS Cup. On the other side, Houston center back Geoff Cameron was a mighty force Sunday against Kansas City, eliminating danger time and again on the ground and in the air. Yet neither appears to be high on Klinsmann's depth chart.
Houston's Brad Davis will miss the final after tearing a quadriceps muscle in his right leg. Such a devastating blow will only add to Houston's underdog status. And the Orange may already be the heaviest MLS Cup underdog since Colorado in 1997, up against D.C. United at RFK Stadium.
Beckham's future is up in the air; this will be his final competitive match under the original five-year deal. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena recently put Beckham's chances of returning to MLS at "50-50." Either way, AEG's massive investment in Beckham, having checked all the boxes in terms of marketing and exposure for domestic soccer, is 90 minutes from providing the ultimate competitive reward.
Finally, this oddball nugget: This is will be an All-AEG final. Houston remains under majority AEG control (although Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions and businessman Gabriel Brener do now hold a minority interest). The Galaxy, of course, remains AEG's pride and joy among soccer holdings. And the actual cup for which both teams will compete, the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, is named for AEG's founder. So, though MLS has come far in its ownership diversity initiative, there's still some ground to cover there.
3. Sprains, strains and tears: Injuries never played such a mighty role in MLS playoffs. And rallying past injury emerged as an equally critical theme.
On the down-and-out side, reigning champ Colorado limped away quietly last week, unable to overcome its devastating litany of sprains, strains and tears in the conference semifinal round.
Last week, the men of Real Salt Lake hung on somehow, managing without center backs Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers. Olave gave it a hobbled go Sunday in Carson but was hardly himself. Borchers couldn't play at all, and the center back issue was surely a factor in Los Angeles' 3-1 triumph. The Galaxy's transition game, always best in MLS, was at high-rev on Sunday. Young replacement Chris Schuler and a gimpy Olave just couldn't keep up.
Still, RSL's ability to find its way into Sunday's conference final minus these two massive figures was impressive. So, who knew Houston would find a way to trump RSL's demonstration of unflinching resistance?
But there it was Sunday at Livestrong Sporting Park, where the Dynamo looked suddenly unsettled for a few minutes just before the break, having watched league MVP candidate Davis go wincing off to the locker room, taking much of Houston's offense with him. Davis, don't forget, either scored or assisted on 44 percent of Houston's goals this year.
The Dynamo's ability to regroup, adjust and dig up two goals in the 2-0 win at Sporting Kansas City proves Davis is just part of this timely Dynamo roll. There's a lot going right these days in Houston, a team with four consecutive road wins, and unbeaten in its last nine overall. We'll have to see if it's enough.
4. Dominic Kinnear, pulling the right strings: Even in the best of times, when everyone is 100 percent satisfied with the U.S. national team coach (which never really happens) it's always a hoot to discuss the next national team coach. It's just how we are.
For some time, Houston's Dominic Kinnear was front and center in that conversation. Then Real Salt Lake's Jason Kreis began checking off the accomplishments, just about the time Kinnear's Dynamo took a little dip, and suddenly RSL's boss was the hot young thing.
Well, Kreis is still a good manager, of course. But today Kinnear is reaping all the praise. And deservedly so. This will be Kinnear's third MLS Cup appearance in eight years of pro coaching. He won his first two, by the way.
A lot of people tend to forget how close Kinnear and Co. came two years ago to upsetting the Galaxy in the 2009 Western Conference final, in a wacky and discombobulated night that featured two power outages at the Home Depot Center.
Last year was a toughie for the Orange, putting things back together after losing Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark. Kinnear's team remained a fixer-upper into this year, rounding the halfway pole at a humble 4-6-7. The second half was much better, as we know, with Houston rampaging to the finish line with an 8-3-6 mark over the campaign's second half.
Speaking of impressive records: Kinnear's mark with the Dynamo in postseason contests is 10-4-2, which is flat-out getting it done.
A lot has been said this year about Sporting Kansas City and all the fantastic things going on with a progressive ownership group and an unbelievable facility. Everyone at SKC should take a bow, for sure.
But the Houston Dynamo organization has been steadily taking ground all along, with solid attendance (9th of 18 teams this year, despite a crummy stadium in a dodgy part of town), strong supporters groups, solid community roots, etc. And they'll be in a new downtown ground in a few months.
As an organization, the Houston Dynamo has been around for just six seasons. So something is clearly going right for a club about to appear in its third championship in that time, while usually doing things on the cheap. It wasn't an expansion side, but rather a relocated outfit from San Jose; so Houston did get a head start. Still, it says a lot about the organization -- and a lot of that is about Kinnear.
5. The flawed playoff structure: MLS commissioner Don Garber says "everything is on the table" as league leaders once again examine how the highly imperfect league playoffs should function. As they look back on 2011, here's what they'll find: probably the most nonsensical postseason to date.
This year, the entire playoff set leading up to MLS Cup (eight matches total) was crammed into 12 days. Which may not be so terrible -- until you consider the 13-day break now disrupting the momentum before a Nov. 20 Home Depot Center final.
Los Angeles, the league's best side wire to wire, was rewarded by traveling across country to open the postseason. Then, Bruce Arena's side had one fewer day of rest than Real Salt Lake between the conference semifinal and Sunday's Western Conference finale.
All that, plus the usual complaints over the toggling the format: one game, then aggregate goals over two legs, then one game again. Try explaining that one to somebody just starting to follow MLS.
Houston's triumph on the road Sunday provided more evidence that higher seeds hosting a one-off conference final isn't the big edge it's made out to be. In five of the last six years, one road team has prevailed in this round.
The playoffs did, at least, reiterate one lesson that simply cannot be overstated:
Reports from social media and traditional outlets Sunday brimmed with tales of brilliant atmosphere at Livestrong Sporting Park. Even when Houston went up a goal the place was alive with song and revelry. The lesson here is clear for MLS and for any club, future or existing, gathering a stadium plan: MLS teams don't just need a place to play, they need the right places. It really does mean everything.
Not so long ago, Sporting Kansas City was an MLS wasteland. But just look what committed ownership with the right stadium plan can do.