HOUSTON -- No David Beckham. No Landon Donovan.
The Galaxy heads into its regular-season finale Sunday evening against the Houston Dynamo without their two biggest stars, and that's not all.
They are among a half-dozen influential players who headed home as soon as the Galaxy's charter flight arrived Friday afternoon in Houston from Honduras, all being rested for next weekend's playoff opener. If it looks a little like surrender, think back to Columbus a month ago. Also following a crucial CONCACAF Champions League game in Central America, L.A. took on the Crew in front of a full house without several big guns -- Donovan, Beckham and Robbie Keane included -- and pulled out a dramatic 1-0 victory.
Something like that would be perfect for the Galaxy (19-4-10), who consider this one important even if it means nothing to their championship aspirations. A victory would give them 70 points -- a league record, two better than the '98 Galaxy side -- and and a shutout would be their 18th of the season, also an MLS best.
“This is our third game [in eight days]. We traveled all over the place,” head coach Bruce Arena noted. “We're here to play well -- there's no question about that. I think we've earned the right to rest some players.”
Also home are Best XI (and MLS Defender of the Year) candidates Todd Dunivant and Omar Gonzalez, midfielder Mike Magee and goalkeeper Josh Saunders -- and Keane remains sidelined with a leg injury.
“They'll probably think we're taking it easy with the lineup that we put out, but that's not the case,” midfielder Chris Birchall said. “We feel we can still go out and win the game, and it will be a good test for some of our players who haven't played too many of these games.”
The Galaxy could have Sean Franklin back from a knee injury that has sidelined him for six weeks, and 16-year-old forward Jack McBean and rookie defender Ryan Thomas could make their MLS debuts. It wouldn't be a surprise to see rookies Hector Jimenez or Dan Keat in the starting lineup for the first time, or for Dasan Robinson to see his first action with the Galaxy, and Brian Perk could get the call in goal for the second time, depending on how Donovan Ricketts' ailing quad is doing.
“No matter what team Bruce has put out there, they’ve done well and gotten results,” Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear told reporters this week. “Defensively, they’re always organized, and they don’t give you much.”
Gregg Berhalter, A.J. DeLaGarza and Frankie Hejduk are available in the back, Champions League hero Juninho could get the call in central midfield, and veteran Jovan Kirovski figures to see ample time. So could rising youngsters Paolo Cardozo and Miguel Lopez, who have been exceptional the past month or so.
“We have the best squad in the league. There's no doubt about that,” said Keat, a holding midfielder from New Zealand. “And I think you see from the players and the experience we have in the team that this isn't a dummy lineup. ... It's important for the guys who haven't been playing to show that they can be in the 18 and be involved in helping us win the MLS Cup.”
L.A. will open the playoffs next weekend on the road, and the result at Robertson Stadium will narrow the list of possible opponents to three clubs. The lower-seeded survivor of the wild-card games Wednesday and Thursday gets the Galaxy, and the options at the moment are defending MLS Cup champion Colorado, Columbus, New York and the Dynamo.
This match is critical for Houston (11-9-13), which can skip the wild-card phase and claim the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed with a victory. Anything else, and it faces a one-game playoff at FC Dallas or Colorado to get into the main eight-team bracket.
WORTH NOTING: This is the Dynamo's final regular-season game at Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston's campus, their home the past six seasons. They'll move into a new 22,000-seat stadium, under construction on the edge of downtown Houston, next season. ... The Galaxy leads the all-time series, 6-4-4, and are 3-2-2 in Houston. ... L.A. won its home meeting, back in May, with Donovan's penalty kick in first-half stoppage standing up for a 1-0 victory. ... Houston is 9-3-4 at home. The Galaxy are 7-4-5 on the road.
MISSING: In addition to Beckham, Donovan, Dunivant, Gonzalez, Magee, Josh Saunders and Keane, central defenders Leonardo and Sean Alvarado (both torn ACLs) and defender/midfielder Bryan Jordan (ruptured finger tendon) are out. ... Ricketts, Franklin (inflamed knee) and Berhalter (sprained foot) are questionable.
The Scotland-born, Bay Area-raised Kinnear is on MLS's first line of coaches. He assisted Frank Yallop when San Jose won MLS Cup titles in 2001 and 2003, guided the Earthquakes to the Supporters' Shield in 2005, then won MLS Cup titles as head coach in the first two seasons after the team moved to Houston. A fine attacking midfielder, Kinnear made 54 appearances for the U.S. national team (should have been on the 1994 World Cup roster) and played in Mexico and for three MLS clubs.
Three key players
Brad Davis is MLS's most dangerous left winger, a set-piece specialist who creates from the flank -- and shares the league lead (with Beckham) with 15 assists.
Geoff Cameron first emerged as a backline leader for the Dynamo, turned out to be far more dynamic in midfield, and he occupies either spot with great panache.
Tally Hall inherited the goalkeeping job when Canadian legend Pat Onstad retired, and he's been pivotal to the Dynamo's success, repeatedly making big saves to bail out Houston's defense.
The streaky Dynamo carry a five-game unbeaten streak, with wins in three of the last four games, that led them into the postseason, and boast a balanced attack with seven players who have scored at least four goals -- but nobody with more than five. They've dealt with injury problems much of the season but are healthy now, and in MVP candidate Davis, Cameron, 2006 World Cup selection Brian Ching and 2006 MLS Defender of the Year Bobby Boswell boast veteran leadership that rivals that of the best clubs in the league. They've won at home against Seattle and Real Salt Lake and on the road at FC Dallas.
Ching played in eight MLS games and scored a goal for the Galaxy in 2001. … Goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley was on the Galaxy's staff during the 2007 season. … Kinnear was based in Mission Viejo during the buildup to the 1994 World Cup.
Forward Cam Weaver is out following hip surgery.
At Robertson Stadium (Houston), 4 p.m. PT
TV: Fox Sports West and Galavision
Radio: K-Talk (KTLK-AM/1150, English) and ESPN Deportes (KWKU-AM/1220, Spanish)
Referee: Jorge Gonzalez