The Galaxy might be the favorite heading into Sunday evening's Western Conference final at Home Depot Center (ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, 6 p.m.), but FC Dallas, too, has the look of a champion, and neither side would be a surprise in the Nov. 21 MLS Cup final in Toronto.
This one could be decided by the slimmest of margins, no matter what the score, and the team that best couples an effective attack with firm, committed team defense is likely to head off to Canada for a showdown with the Colorado Rapids.
What does the Galaxy need to reach its seventh MLS Cup title game?
1. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE D
L.A.'s players are talking up an attack-first approach, saying they're at home and plan to apply heavy pressure on FC Dallas' defense from the opening whistle. There's something to that -- the Galaxy put Seattle on its heels early in last week's playoff victory at HDC -- but we're betting they're not being entirely truthful.
The dominance of Seattle in the first-round series was based on suffocating, full-field defending from everybody in the lineup, and that's what it's going to take to shut off the Hoops' dynamic, quick-strike attack.
The key is keeping a close eye and lots of bodies on MVP favorite David Ferreira, a superb playmaker whose touch and vision are special and whose tendency to drift into unexpected positions makes him particularly difficult to deal with. His ability to find runners from midfield and on the wing and connect with speedy finisher Jeff Cunningham up top are deadly; if he finds much success, the Galaxy are done for.
Ferreira carved up Real Salt Lake's league's-best defense in the first round, but stats don't mean a whole lot in this sport, and L.A.'s defensive play the past few weeks -- in the first truly important matches the club has played this season -- has bordered on perfect. Not always in terms of execution, mind you, but the emphasis on swallowing up space in midfield, denying access behind the backline and pressuring opposing midfielders to do something other than what they prefer made the difference certainly against the Sounders.
It's not only about the defenders and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, all of whom have been really solid, even better than that. (Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza look like the central partnership going forward; Sean Franklin has evolved into a complete right back; why, again, is Eddie Lewis retiring?) It's Edson Buddle's tireless work up front, the commitment Landon Donovan and David Beckham are making to defend from box to box; and, of course, Dema Kovalenko's take-no-prisoners style in the middle.
All of them will have to be sharp against FC Dallas, which is more athletic, just as dynamic, possibly faster and certainly more dangerous with Ferreira pulling the strings than the Seattle side L.A. conquered the past two weeks.
2. THE SMART GAME WINS
The Galaxy's primary advantages Sunday are home field and experience. They're a team with a lot of big-game veterans -- Beckham and Donovan most of all -- who know how to win when there's no other option.
The Galaxy, more so than any other team in the league, can gut out victories by sheer will whether or not they have more of the ball or most of the game. Nobody manages a game as does L.A. coach Bruce Arena, and his team will disrupt the Hoops in every way it can. Look for early, professional fouls that destroy rhythm and momentum, and for tough, physical play, some of which -- especially when Kovalenko is involved -- might “push the envelope,” as associate head coach Dave Sarachan puts it.
L.A. needs to attack aggressively but be smart about it. FC Dallas likes to counterattack, and its speed and precision can tear up defenses when numbers are even or close to it, so the Galaxy must keep their shape no matter the occasion and make sure the Hoops can't get their transition into high gear.
If that requires an ugly game, so be it. Winning is all that matters; nobody knows this better than the Galaxy.
3. TAKE YOUR CHANCES
The Galaxy has rallied from behind to win just once all season, in its victory over Dallas in the regular-season finale three weeks ago at HDC. The Hoops have surrendered the first goal and rallied to tie or win eight times, including the first-leg triumph over RSL in the first round.
Scoring first is always vital, but the Galaxy's success early in the season was built on a knack for early goals, and they'll be in much better shape here if they can strike quickly.
They're going to have chances -- FC Dallas' defense is good, especially in midfield (with team leader Daniel Hernandez) and in the nets (with former Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman), but it's not spectacular. L.A. might not have as many weapons as the Hoops, and they certainly have nobody who can create as Ferreira does, but their 1-2-3 punch of Beckham, Donovan and Buddle is unmatched in MLS.
Donovan can create from nothing, and Beckham's service -- especially on set pieces (which will likely prod the Hoops to use for defensive purposes 6-foot-4 Brek Shea on the left flank rather than 5-5 Marvin Chavez) but also from the run of play -- provides danger any time he has the ball on the wing in opposing territory. Juninho complements them nicely, and Lewis (or Todd Dunivant, if he gets the call at left back) and Franklin are solid on forays forward.
Key will be Buddle, who's big, quick, skillful and has scored 19 goals this season. He's equally capable with his feet and his head and has had his share of spectacular finishes. When he gets his chances, he needs to put them away.