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When the L.A. Galaxy hosts the Houston Dynamo in the 17th MLS Cup final this Saturday, the temptation will be to view the game as a carbon copy of last year's domestic soccer showpiece. Same teams, same stadium, after all. Not so fast. Unlike in 2011, this year's Galaxy wasn't even close to being MLS's top regular-season team—L.A. finished eighth. And the Dynamo's most dangerous attackers this year, midfielders Brad Davis (torn quadriceps) and Oscar Boniek García (midseason '12 addition), weren't on the field in last year's game. Here are three matchups to watch in this year's decidedly different league final.
BRAD DAVIS vs. SEAN FRANKLIN
One of the top left-side midfielders in league history—a master of finding the space to deliver crosses into the box, and a guy who can mix things up by cutting inside and shooting from distance—Davis had the misfortune of missing out on last year's game, but that won't be the case here. Franklin, the Galaxy's mobile right back, will have to neutralize Davis while picking the right spots to move upfield and join the attack. If he doesn't strike that balance, Davis will make the Galaxy pay, either by himself or by feeding to teammates Boniek García and Will Bruin up top.
BOBBY BOSWELL vs. ROBBIE KEANE
With five goals in the playoffs for L.A. (and 21 total this year), the 32-year-old Keane has shown he isn't just vacationing in MLS. The Irish striker clearly cares, throwing his body around the field and pairing well with Landon Donovan, who has emerged from his seasonlong malaise and played his best soccer during the playoffs. The challenge for center back Boswell, a former MLS Defender of the Year, will be to cut off Keane's combination passes with Donovan and contain some of the unpredictable moves Keane developed over his years in the Premier League.
DOMINIC KINNEAR vs. BRUCE ARENA
Easily the two most successful postseason coaches in MLS history, Arena (three titles, six finals) and Kinnear (two; four) are management masters who excel at exploiting tiny advantages. They favor different styles: Arena's Galaxy relies on the passing and technical skills of high-priced Designated Players Keane, Donovan and David Beckham, while Kinnear's lower-budget Dynamo disrupts foes in the midfield and counters with the precision of Davis, Boniek García and Bruin. It's a fair bet that more than one goal will be scored this time around. My pick: Galaxy 2, Dynamo 1