CARSON -- The paths the Galaxy and Houston Dynamo have taken toward Major League Soccer's 16th championship game are eerily similar. It's just the strides haven't followed in step.
The Galaxy are three seasons into a mammoth rebuild, a work of startling brilliance by Bruce Arena, America's best soccer coach doing the best work of his career.
The Dynamo are where the Galaxy sat two years ago, Arena's first full season in charge. Head coach Dominic Kinnear has made radical changes to his roster and didn't get the lineup right until September, and now -- well ahead of schedule -- his team is playing for a trophy that looked wholly out of grasp just a couple of months ago.
It's the makings of a classic MLS Cup final: two of the league's most storied franchises, led by two of the league's most respected coaches (one a former U.S. national team boss, the other a potential U.S. manager down the line), both fighting back from franchise lows and emerging just 90 minutes or perhaps 120 (and maybe penalty kicks, too) from the most coveted silverware in the American game.
Now throw in all of the side chatter -- Will David Beckham return to MLS? Oh, no, Brad Davis can't play! -- and remember the clubs share ownership. (AEG owns half of the Dynamo.)
The Dynamo have American soccer's most enduring dynasty -- four titles and three coulda-beens since 2001, starting when the team played in San Jose. And it's been pointed out a few times that this Galaxy team could be, should be -- surely is -- the finest side in league history, and that it comes in, playing at home and all, as massive favorite.
“I think this is going to be a lot better game than people expect it to be,” said Davis, the Dynamo's star winger, an MVP finalist who will sit out after tearing a quadriceps muscle in the Eastern Conference title-game triumph two weeks ago in Kansas City. “I think people expect L.A. to come out and just beat us and walk all over us. I don't think that's the way it's going to be at all.
“I think they have a very good team, but anybody knows you come down to these games, it's how you show up that day. They could be the best team all year, but I believe the mentality and the attitude and the way we've been playing of late has been some of the best that I've been on with the club.”
Davis has been with the Dynamo since their last season, 2005, in San Jose, and was a contributor to thebteams that won MLS Cups the first two seasons in Houston. Two more players -- forward Brian Ching and reserve defender Eddie Robinson -- also were Earthquakes, as were Kinnear and some of his staff.
It was the legacy started in San Jose, with MLS Cup titles in 2001 and 2003 and a Supporters' Shield in 2005, that the Dynamo sought to connect with after missing the postseason last year.
Houston followed its twin titles by winning the Western Conference in 2008 but was upset in the opening round of the playoffs. A year later, the Dynamo played for an MLS Cup berth, losing controversially to the Galaxy in the Western Conference final at the Home Depot Center. With better luck, they might have won four successive championships.
The departures of three influential midfielders -- Dwayne De Rosario to his hometown Toronto FC (and elsewhere) after the 2008 season, 2010 U.S. World Cup selections Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark to Europe after 2009 -- gutted the side, which dipped from a tied-for-league-most 13 wins in 2009 into a 9-15-6 campaign last year.
“That probably was the hardest thing for our organization to overcome,” said Ching, who has been with the club since 2003. “You lose three national team players in the midfield in a matter of two years; that's hard for any organization.”
Kinnear followed Arena's blueprint, in a fashion, bringing in a dozen players before and during the season, including four men who will start Sunday: Jamaican defender Jermaine Taylor, Scottish midfielder Adam Moffat, Brazilian midfielder Luiz Camargo and forward Calen Carr.
It wasn't an easy fit at first, and they endured a 1-4-8 stretch from early May to early July and stood 5-7-9, in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, following a 3-0 loss at Chivas USA on July 23.
“They were talking about we weren't going to make the playoffs, and we're horrible, this and that, and you look at it, and we struggled the beginning of the season,” defender Geoff Cameron said. “But we had the attitude of never giving up. ... We had that grit and that attitude that we're not going to let this get us down.”
Everything came together in late summer. Ching, hampered by one injury after another, became healthy, and Carr returned from a concussion, giving the Dynamo an enviable big/small, target/runner combination up front.
Moffat was acquired from Portland on July 21, and he quickly fit into the deeper central midfield spot; Camarago debuted Sept. 1 -- their partnership enabled Kinnear to move Cameron, his most versatile player, back into central defense. Since that move, in mid-September, the Dynamo haven't lost, going 7-0-2 -- the past five games are wins -- while conceding just six goals.
“They're a team that plays with a lot of confidence,” Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant said. “What matters is the last two months of the season -- if you can make the playoffs -- so they're turning it on at the right time and making a difference when it counts. It's a team that's very dangerous.”
The Galaxy were in the same place two years ago, going on an unexpected run to the Western Conference title and into the title game, which they lost to Real Salt Lake on penalties. Arena says there are lessons from that game he'll carry into Sunday.
“One thing we've done is we've positioned ourselves now to win an MLS Cup, which was a heck of a challenge to get here,” he said. “One thing we learned from 2009: You may never have the chance again, so when you get there, that's your moment, you've got to play well and produce. ...
“There's certain advantages we have [playing at home], but they get thrown out the window if you step on the field and you're not ready to play and you don't play well. So we've got to take care of business, whether we're playing on our field or elsewhere. We've got to go out and play well.”
WORTH NOTING: The winner will be the second club to win three MLS Cup titles -- D.C. United has four -- and Arena or Kinnear will become the first coach with three victories. ... Taylor told media he will start at left back for Houston, with Corey Ashe in midfield -- the same lineup Kinnear used in the Eastern Conference final at Sporting Kansas City after Davis' injury. ... The Galaxy lead the all-time series, 6-5-4, and both sides have 17 goals. ... L.A. won at home, a 1-0 decision in May on a Donovan goal in first-half stoppage, but lost, 3-1, in the regular-season finale in Houston while fielding a reserve squad. Teen forward Jack McBean scored in his debut for the Galaxy in that one. ... In the meeting two years ago in the Western Conference final, the Galaxy pulled out a 2-0 victory on overtime goals by Gregg Berhalter and Donovan. The game was halted twice by power failures, and a would-be winning goal by Houston defender Andre Hainault was waved off.
MISSING: Forward Chad Barrett (dislocated foot) and central defenders Leonardo and Sean Alvarado (both torn ACLs) are out. ... Beckham (back spasms), Berhalter (sprained foot) and defender/midfielder Bryan Jordan (ruptured finger tendon) are questionable. ... Forward Miguel Lopez is not on the list but is dealing with a hip/abdominal strain that could keep him out.
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
Ching is the face of the Dynamo, a top-class striker (who was on the 2006 U.S. World Cup team) whose leadership, scoring prowess and -- perhaps most important -- ability to hold the ball and combine lifts Houston's game.
Cameron first emerged as a backline leader for the Dynamo, then moved to midfield with great success, but his return to central defense has been pivotal to Houston's turnaround.
Tally Hall inherited the goalkeeping job when Canadian legend Pat Onstad retired, and he's been crucial to the Dynamo's success, keeping them in games with big saves before things turned around the last stretch of the season.
The Dynamo haven't lost in nine games, not since Cameron moved from midfield into central defense. The additions of central midfielders Moffat and Luiz Camargo, return to health of first-choice forwards Ching and Carr, and acquisition of Honduran forward Carlo Costly gave Houston a massive lift after an up-and-mostly-down first four months of the season. Davis' loss deprives the Dynamo of their provider, but Moffat can deliver set pieces, and the speedy Ashe, moved forward from left back, provides a dynamic that could make a difference for a side that hopes its size and aggressiveness provide an advantage.
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 in 2007. … Kinnear was based in Mission Viejo during the buildup to the 1994 World Cup.
Davis is joined on the sidelines by forward Jason Garey and Cam Weaver, who are recovering from hip surgeries.
MLS Cup 2011
Home Depot Center (Carson), 6:25 p.m.
TV: ESPN and Galavision (coverage begins at 6 p.m.)
Radio: K-Talk (KTLK-AM/1150, English) and ESPN Deportes (KWKU-AM/1220 and KWKW-AM/1330, both Spanish)
Referee: Ricardo Salazar
PROBABLE STARTING XI
Galaxy: Josh Saunders; Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant; Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Juninho, Mike Magee; Adam Cristman, Robbie Keane.
Houston Dynamo: Tally Hall; Andre Hainault, Bobby Boswell, Geoff Cameron, Jermaine Taylor; Danny Cruz, Adam Moffat, Luiz Camargo, Corey Ashe; Calen Carr, Brian Ching.